Government plans to extend weekend court sittings could be in jeopardy following a Law Society warning that ‘very few’ defence solicitors will take part in pilot schemes.
In a letter to justice secretary Kenneth Clarke, Society president Lucy Scott-Moncrieff said solicitors feel ‘strongly alienated’ by the plans, which she observed were introduced without consultation with defence practitioners. Scott-Moncrieff said there is ‘real disquiet and anger within the profession’ about the new weekend sittings due to be piloted in magistrates’ courts across England and Wales.
‘The likelihood is that very few defence practitioners will feel able to take part in these pilots,’ she said, adding that in ‘at least one area’ there is a ‘significant shortage’ of volunteers even to cover the duty solicitor slot.
Scott-Moncrieff also reiterated concerns over the absence of proposals to pay solicitors taking part in the pilots for working weekends. ‘Whereas arrangements exist to compensate duty solicitors working at weekends, no such provisions exist for solicitors attending to conduct trials or in remand cases if the client has exercised his or her right to have their own solicitor present,’ she said.
‘While other agencies may be able to compensate their employees through overtime enhancements and time off in lieu, these options are not economically practicable for defence firms. It is not acceptable for firms to be placed in a position where they will lose money if they participate in these pilots.’
Scott-Moncrieff said guidance should be given to magistrates not to list cases on a Saturday or Sunday if the defendant’s solicitor is unwilling or unable to attend court on that day. The flexible court pilots, outlined last month in the white paper Swift and Sure Justice, have begun in Cardiff (pictured), Neath and Bridgend magistrates’ courts. They are designed to build on the processes used to deal with the large number of people arrested during last summer’s riots.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said the department is working to finalise which areas will take part in the six-month pilots. He said extended Saturday and Sunday courts are expected to make up only a ‘very small proportion’ of the pilots, which will also involve extended weekday sittings and more use of video technology.
An e-petition has been set up calling for the weekend courts to be scrapped.