New justice minister Jeremy Wright today said the government would cancel plans for weekend court hearings if the trial proves to be unsuccessful.
Wright, in his first public speech since joining the department last month, said it would be ‘crazy’ to pursue the policy nationwide if concerns raised by the profession about the ongoing regional tests proved to be correct.
The former criminal barrister told a fringe meeting of the Conservative Party conference that he had met the Bar Council this morning to hear its view that weekend and evening sittings at court would not succeed.
But Wright urged sceptics to give the pilot a chance before dismissing it, and said his own experience of the court system had convinced him improvements were necessary and possible.
‘I understand the concerns about weekend courts. Lots of cases won’t work in the evening or weekends but others will. Witnesses have to take several days of time out of work to sit around in a court building only to be called at the end of day three.
‘Asking them to go in on a Saturday might be an advantage to them. We will not be expecting [lawyers] to come in routinely on Sunday mornings but there may be a case for being a little more flexible about what hours we work,’ he said.
The minister outlined a number of other efficiency savings he would to introduce in the court process, including reducing the number of papers and calling witnesses – especially police officers – and defendants by video link-up where appropriate. Wright, whose portfolio includes prisons, said the Ministry of Justice was committed to 23% savings on its budget – around £2bn – every year until 2015.
The Gazette understands that Chancery Lane has been told that participating courts will choose from a ‘menu of options’, including extended court sittings on weekdays and Saturday afternoons, Sunday court sittings and extended use of virtual courts and video links to prisons.
The Law Society, which opposes the scheme, said: ‘It is inappropriate for the courts to sit outside normal business hours and to require solicitors to attend weekend hearings, where there is no emergency and the cases are not of the sort usually undertaken at weekend sittings.’
It said the initiative will increase costs to law firms and ‘will be an expensive way of making the magistrates’ courts less efficient, at a time of decreasing workloads and when all the criminal justice agencies are struggling with budget cuts.’
The Society said it plans to monitor the pilots and gather evidence from solicitors about the problems caused and costs incurred, which it will share with the MoJ when it evaluates the pilots in the new year.
Wright denied the MoJ's savings plans would mean a cap on prisoner numbers and said it was a matter for the courts, rather than ministers, to decide who would go to prison.
He did reveal that he would not support any reduction in the number of short sentences passed by magistrates and judges, despite criticism that they offer no rehabilitation to the offender. ‘Short prison sentences do work for public protection,’ he added.
‘There’s no doubt that the reoffending rates for short term sentences is pretty horrendous, but I am not of the view that all those who would have received a short sentence shouldn’t have one.’
Wright said that those expecting immediate reform of the probation and prison service would have to wait. Four new ministers were appointed to the department in David Cameron’s reshuffle last month and Wright said they needed to ‘pause for breath’ before introducing any new legislation.