Almost 400 solicitors and barristers have signed an open letter to HM Courts & Tribunals Service, refusing to attend a ‘single court listing outside of regular court hours’. The Ministry of Justice responded today by denying the existence of any plan for weekend sittings.
The signatories – consisting of lawyers who regularly attend the criminal courts – claim that the government has ‘overseen the obliteration’ of the profession, despite repeated warnings. ‘It has been entirely unmoved by respected legal aid firms closing down, duty solicitors and criminal barristers leaving the profession in droves, and pupils and trainees earning less than the real living wage. It has left the courts – our places of work – leaking, filthy and broken.’
The lawyers, including eight QCs, said their ‘goodwill has run dry’ and that they will not attend court listings outside of court hours ‘under any circumstances’.
‘We are expected to attend hearings during our evenings and weekends when we need to spend time with our families, and to recuperate from exhausting days and nights in courts and police stations, in order to fix a disaster which is entirely of the government’s own making. We are told to do so for no extra funds, without our representative bodies having been consulted in advance.’
They added that they want to clear the backlog a sustainable way ‘which affords dignity to ourselves, our clients, and court staff’.
Last month, the Ministry of Justice announced that judges will have the option to open courtrooms for longer under new ‘temporary operating hours’, proposing two models that would run alongside standard operating hours.
The ‘blended model’ would involve running two separate jury trials listed in one courtroom: one from 9am to 1pm and one from 2pm to 6pm. Meanwhile, the ‘remote model’ would be for sessions held entirely remotely, where the hearing takes place outside of the standard 9am-5pm operating hours.
A HMCTS spokesperson said: ‘This petition is based on year-old information which was superseded by new plans published this month. Under these plans there is no proposal to mandate Crown court trials on weekends, and any decision to extend the operating hours of a court would be for its independent resident judge.’
This statement is apparently at odds, however, with HMCTS' annual report - published last month - which contained plans to extend court and tribunal operating hours into evenings and weekends 'to make more use of court space'.
Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce said: ‘We are not surprised to see that practitioners feel this way given how badly they have been underfunded for decades, and the additional impact of the pandemic on them and their firms.
‘A move to extended hours is likely to impose additional costs on law firms, many of which are already suffering the financial burden of the pandemic, and the further negative impact on work/life balance could make it even more difficult for firms to recruit and retain staff. This could lead to capacity shrinking once more at a time when the entire criminal justice system and those that work within it are already stretched to breaking point.’