Over 500 signatories
Over 500 lawyers have signed an open letter rejecting government plans to open courts on evenings and weekends.
A group of criminal solicitors and barristers, including 13 QCs, who attend court on a regular basis have written to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS), saying “our goodwill has run dry” and that they will not attend a single court listing outside of regular court hours “under any circumstances”.
Last month the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) announced that judges will have the option to open courtrooms for longer under new ‘temporary operating arrangements’. The MoJ said the measure — which would be completely at the discretion of judges — enabled a courtroom to run two lists, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, instead of the standard 10am-4pm hours.
It was deemed to be part of plans to help the court system catch up from the backlog of cases brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, but it was bitterly opposed by the legal profession.
“The backlog of cases in the criminal courts is not due to the Covid-19 outbreak,” the open letter states. “It is the result of years of underfunding of our criminal justice system. It is the inevitable outcome of selling off courts, of reducing judges’ sitting days and of other cost-cutting measures. We and our representative bodies have been banging this drum for years.”
“Not only has the government ignored our warnings, it has overseen the obliteration of our profession. 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 letter adds: “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 go on to say that they want to clear the backlog in a sustainable way “which affords dignity to ourselves, our clients, and court staff”.
A HMCTS spokesperson said in response: “This petition is based on year-old information which was superseded by new plans published this month.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.”
Yet, HMCTS published its annual report last month which contained plans to extend court and tribunal operating hours into evenings and weekends “to make more use of [court] space”.
In a statement last week, Derek Sweeting QC, chair of the Bar Council, strongly criticised the proposals, saying there was little evidence that longer hours worked.
“‘Temporary operating arrangements’ is yet another title for an extended court day,” he said. There is little evidence that this measure will increase throughput or allow the court estate to be used more efficiently… A longer court day will have an impact on all court users, particularly those reliant on public transport and with caring responsibilities.”
You can view the open letter here.