If you’re a criminal legal aid lawyer these days the chances are you are pretty fed up with your lot. We’ve had consultations about new methods of working that threaten the very existence of many firms and Chambers, that cost solicitors firms thousands of pounds before being abandoned, we’ve had cuts to our pay over many years, and every day we face a court system that struggles to keep going due to the chronic lack of funding.
So it was no surprise that the announcement by HM Courts and Tribunals service [HMCTS] that they wanted to pilot the idea of courts starting much earlier and finishing much later than at present was met by immediate and universal condemnation by the Chairman of the Bar, the CBA, the CLSA and the LCCSA.
A variety of criminal and civil courts have been chosen as potential pilot courts. In the Magistrates’ Courts the plan is that courts should begin sittings from as early as 8.00am and not finish until 8.30pm. Along with Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court in London, Sheffield Magistrates’ Court was selected by the Courts Service to participate in a pilot scheme.
Along with about thirty others I attended a lunchtime meeting today of South Yorkshire criminal lawyers and civil servants from HM Courts Service. We were told that it was the desire of the Lord Chancellor and the LCJ that this pilot should be run. I will leave the LCJ to one side for now but that would be the same Lord Chancellor who has previously demonstrated her ignorance of what her job entails when she failed to defend the judges in the Brexit case at the end of last year and then announced the roll out of cross-examination in advance in sex cases when no such roll out had been agreed. If this latest scheme really was her idea she should be ashamed of herself.
We were told at the start of the meeting that the civil servants wanted to hear our views on the practicalities of this proposed scheme and that the scheme was definitely “not a done deal”. I know many of you cynics will immediately equate that phrase with the phrase “oh yes it is” especially when uttered by an MoJ employee.
Although we had been invited to consider “the opportunities” as well as “the challenges” of early and late court sittings, during the presentation the officials from HMCTS did not put forward a single suggested benefit to anyone from such a scheme. The reasons for that are also obvious. There aren’t any. Having asked for our views, over the course of the next 55 minutes or so the civil servants were bombarded with all the many good reasons this scheme not only won’t work but should never have been thought up in the first place.
Top amongst the obvious objections from the assembled lawyers was childcare and the extent to which this scheme would discriminate against women who still bear the major responsibility for childcare. Nurseries and creches don’t open early enough or stay open late enough to allow parents to leave their children with others from 6am and collect them again at 10pm even if such nonsense was remotely desirable. One female solicitor pointed out that her firm would be guilty of discrimination if they required her to undertake work under this scheme and that if she took them to the tribunal where she would likely win her case the firm would not get their LAA contract renewed if there was a discrimination finding against the firm. That alone should be quite enough to ensure this pilot never sees the light of day.
Then there was the issue about where lawyers would find the time to prepare for the next day’s cases if they were in court until 8.30 in the evening, how to deal with overnight remands likely to be listed at 8am if a lawyer also has a trial that doesn’t get on until 5 in the afternoon – an entirely plausible scenario, the unlikely co-operation of client’s on bail, the lack of any new remuneration for lawyers working unsocial hours, and the danger to lawyers working in city centres late at night and having to walk back to cars in almost empty car parks.
One interesting point that was conceded by the officials was that this scheme turns out to be a natural consequence of previous court closures. In South Yorkshire for example Rotherham Magistrates’ Courts has closed recently and all the work and the clients affected is now heard in Sheffield. So having closed various local courts the MoJ is now wondering how to cram as much work as possible into a single court centre with little or no care for the consequences to those directly affected by such changes.
Well the MoJ came and whether they were listening to what we said or not the message was resoundingly clear. This is a rotten scheme, that won’t work and it won’t work in particular because the defence community want nothing to do with it and do not intend to co-operate with it. Since we were told that if the defence lawyers were not prepared to co-operate there would be no pilot scheme that would seem to be the death knell for this idea. I hope our colleagues at Highbury Corner send the same message to the MoJ. It is however not just Magistrates Courts that are affected by the proposed pilot. Newcastle Crown Court has been ear-marked for a pilot in the Crown Court. In Manchester the Civil Justice Centre is due to be involved. So this is not just an issue affecting Magistrates’ Court lawyers. This will adversely affect most criminal and many civil lawyers.
If you get a chance to respond to this scheme please do so. If you are in an area where the pilots are proposed please attend any meeting on this issue and make sure the MoJ gets the message. This scheme is rotten, it is discriminatory, it will have massively adverse effects on the family lives of the lawyers and court staff and it should be binned.