Manchester law firms are refusing to ask staff to attend magistrates’ courts at weekends because they say to do so would require a unilateral change to contracts of employment and invite claims of unfair dismissal.

The firms say that some staff could claim constructive dismissal on the grounds of religion and belief discrimination if forced to work on Saturdays and Sundays. Such a move would also have a disproportionate impact on women, who often have caring responsibilities at weekends, the firms say.

The government last month announced plans to pilot magistrates’ court sittings at weekends. Law Society president Lucy Scott-Moncrieff wrote to the justice secretary to protest that the plans had been introduced without consultation and that he could expect few volunteers because no extra payments were being offered.

Allan Maidment of Manchester firm Maidments Solicitors said: ‘Every criminal defence practice in Greater Manchester is of the same view: the government cannot expect us to impose seven-days-a-week terms on staff who signed contracts to work a five-day week.’

Describing the proposals as ‘madness’, Maidment added that there was no proven business case for magistrates’ courts sitting at weekends. ‘There will simply be an additional cost to the public purse of overtime payments to court officials and crown prosecutors. Meanwhile, solicitors are expected to work for nothing.’

Gordon Turner of London firm Gordon Turner Employment Lawyers, who is advising the Manchester firms, said that it is possible to dismiss an employee where they unreasonably refuse to sign up to a change in terms. But he added: ‘This is not a step that most law firms could reasonably consider.

‘They need employees and would face problems recruiting new ones. It would also be very disruptive to business to lay off good solicitors due to conditions imposed by third parties, in this instance the government.’