HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) recently announced plans to pilot late sittings in various criminal and civil courts from next month. In Manchester it is proposed that the Civil Justice Centre remain open and working until 7pm daily during the six month pilot scheme.

The Criminal Law Solicitors Association (CLSA) has issued a press release condemning this move.    Amongst other things they note that this scheme has the apparent approval of "a national steering group of representatives from the Judiciary, Crown Prosecution Service, National Offender Management Service, National Probation Service and the Police."

No doubt there are some judges who support this scheme as well as some from the other agencies named but we seriously doubt this ill-thought out scheme has the support of most judges, probation officers and certainly not the court staff.  As will be readily apparent from the groups not represented by the national steering group there was no attempt to gauge the views of defence solicitors and barristers, civil practitioners, or staff working in chambers or law firms before announcing this pilot.    

The Chairman of the Criminal Bar Association said the scheme is "misconceived, impractical, an inefficient use of time and inimical to anyone with care responsibilities."

Such schemes have been trialled before and none ended well.   We condemn this latest scheme for much the same reasons as set out above. In particular the scheme will mean barristers having to work in court far later than they presently do with a serious knock on effect on their ability to prepare that evening for the next day’s cases.  In addition this scheme threatens to have a serious and utterly disproportionate impact on the family lives of barristers who already work long hours. Many have direct childcare responsibilities which make working until 7pm or later in court completely impractical.  In so far as the bulk of childcare falls on the shoulders of women lawyers this scheme is likely to be discriminatory.   No consideration seems to have been given to the potential impact on our staff in Chambers, predominantly female and with childcare responsibilities, as to whether they are going to need to work later to deal with listings for the following days hearings.

The MoJ and HMCTS need to understand that the remaining goodwill of the Bar on which the entire court service depends is running at dangerously low levels.  Morale has never been lower at the publicly funded Bar after years of cuts to fees together with rising expenditure, for example on electronic equipment as the courts have gone digital.   Barristers in Garden Court North Chambers are in no mood to co-operate with this scheme and we urge the MoJ and HMCTS to withdraw this pilot before it collapses in chaos.

Readers sharing our concerns are invited to sign this petition.

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