News the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has scaled down a pilot project to extend court opening hours is a welcome indication the government is on its way to recognising the fragility of the criminal legal aid sector, the Law Society of England and Wales said today.
Previous plans to trial extended court hours were suspended last September after the Law Society and other key stakeholders raised serious concerns over fundamental issues in execution, resource and methodology.
“HM Courts and Tribunal Service’s (HMCTS) willingness to listen to the Law Society and address our members’ and other stakeholders’ concerns about trialling extended hours is encouraging,” said Law Society president Christina Blacklaws.
“Now the plans have re-emerged without the inclusion of crime courts, we cautiously welcome the smaller scale of the trial. We acknowledge this is a pilot in two civil and family courts and that an independent evaluation will be carried out before any decisions are made about further roll-out. This gives welcome reassurance to our members, who need confidence that the eventual evaluation will be robust.
“Although participation is voluntary, we remain concerned that solicitors with children or other caring responsibilities as well as more junior practitioners and some religious groups may be disadvantaged by these longer hours. In addition, our own analysis indicates the extension of hours will increase the costs to the firms involved.
“Proceeds for legal aid work in family cases is already low. We are therefore pleased that HMCTS have taken on board our recommendation for legal aid solicitors to be compensated through a pilot participation fee for court sessions requiring the attendance of a publicly funded legal representative outside of the hours of 09:00-17:30. We would like to see further details of this fee.
“As always, we will work to make sure our members’ concerns are addressed and evaluated.”
Notes to editors
The extended operating hours pilots were originally due to start in May 2017.
HMCTS had proposed to run the pilots over a six month period at six different courts across the country, including:
- Crown courts: Newcastle Crown Court and Blackfriars Crown Court
- Magistrates' courts: Sheffield and Highbury Corner
- Civil/civil and family courts: Brentford County Court and Manchester Civil Justice Centre
The Law Society raised concerns at local implementation groups, as well as with senior HMCTS and Legal Aid Agency officials.
About the Law Society
The Law Society is the independent professional body that works globally to support and represent solicitors, promoting the highest professional standards, the public interest and the rule of law.
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