Proposals to extend court hours must be approached with extreme caution warns Law Society

The Law Society is today warning that proposals to extend court hours in an effort to tackle the backlog of cases must be approached with extreme caution.

Before the virus hit there was a huge backlog in cases in the Crown Court and yet not enough judges and courts were being used to reduce them.

“Going straight to extended working hours for already beleaguered judges, court staff and legal practitioners needs to be treated with utmost caution and, worse still, we should not be thinking about scrapping jury trials, even if only for some cases and on a temporary basis,” said Simon Davis, president of the Law Society of England and Wales.

“The starting point must be to make proper and full use of our existing judges and courts, added to by part time judges and increased court space. If absolutely necessary the numbers of jurors could be reduced.

“Before looking at extended hours, the Ministry of Justice must ensure that it is making maximum use of normal court hours, with no restrictions on judges sitting while there are court rooms (real, virtual or Nightingale) available where they could be working.

“Extended hours create both financial and practical difficulties and pose risks for the parties and professionals involved.”

Concerns include the safety of court users when leaving buildings at night and negative diversity impacts on solicitors with children or other caring responsibilities as well as more junior practitioners and some religious groups who may be disadvantaged by the longer hours.

The Law Society has long highlighted the perilous situation facing criminal legal aid firms.

Any employees being asked to work unsociable hours will be on contracts which require overtime to be paid, placing further unaffordable burdens on firms already struggling to stay afloat.

“The backlog is not simply a result of the COVID-19,” said Simon Davis. “There was already a substantial problem, particularly in the criminal courts, before the pandemic, meaning there would be no clear and obvious end to any extension of hours.

“If the government is determined to press ahead with extended hours, there should be meaningful consultation with solicitors and barristers, and proper remuneration for practitioners should be ensured, with the focus being on keeping any extended hours within a tight, narrow and temporary remit.”

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