Late night and early morning courts are ‘not a disguised attempt’ to force lawyers to work more, insists top judge

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By Alex Aldridge on

Lord Fulford moves to soothe profession after outcry over 8am-8pm justice

New late night and early morning courts are not a cunning plan to get lawyers to work more, the leading judge in charge of their roll-out has vowed.

Lord Fulford’s move to pacify solicitors and barristers worried about 8am-8pm justice was delivered via a letter sent this week in which he set out to “demystify” the controversial pilot scheme.

In the missive, Fulford states that longer and more flexible court hours are “not a disguised attempt to persuade, or force, judges, court staff, legal professionals and others to spend more time at court than they do at present”.

He goes on to emphasise that court sessions will be split to enable a longer court day but “populated by different people”. The Court of Appeal man adds:

I regret the extent of the widely-broadcast misunderstandings and ill-informed comments from a range of sources.

Fulford is referring to the many negative reactions the proposed late night and early morning courts have provoked since they were first mooted in May.

Among the critics have been the Law Society’s current president, Joe Egan, and his predecessor, Robert Bourns. Both have drawn attention to the cheekiness of asking criminal legal aid lawyers to attend court during antisocial hours when they have basically had a pay freeze for the last two decades. The Criminal Law Association, the Criminal Bar Association and the Bar Council have also voiced their disapproval in strong terms.

A particular concern is the impact that working anti-social hours could have on diversity. Bar Council chair Andrew Langdon QC said:

These arrangements will make it almost impossible for parents with childcare responsibilities to predict if they can make the school run or to know when they will be able to pick children up from the child-minders. The biggest impact will be on women. Childcare responsibilities still fall disproportionately to women, many of whom do not return to the profession after having children. It is hard to see how these plans sit with the government’s commitment to improving diversity in the profession and the judiciary.

This point was addressed specifically by Fulford, who wrote:

If it works it works; if it doesn’t, it doesn’t…a significant, detrimental impact on diversity in the professions is not a price judges are willing to pay.

The extended hours pilot will be conducted at six courts for six months from the autumn. Three are in London (Blackfriars, Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court and Brentford) and three are in the north (Newcastle, Sheffield and Manchester).

It’s worth noting that at none of the courts will full 8am-8pm sessions take place, with the longer hours being trialled at different times across the various locations.

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