Monday 08 October 2012 by John Hyde
New justice minister Jeremy Wright today said the government would cancel plans for weekend court hearings if the trial proves to be unsuccessful.
Wright, in his first public speech since joining the department last month, said it would be 'crazy' to pursue the policy nationwide if concerns raised by the profession about the ongoing regional tests proved to be correct.
The former criminal barrister told a fringe meeting of the Conservative Party Conference that he had met the Bar Council this morning to hear its view that weekend and evening sittings at court would not succeed.
But Wright urged sceptics to give the pilot a chance before dismissing it, and said his own experience of the court system had convinced him improvements were necessary and possible.
'I understand the concerns about weekend courts. Lots of cases won't work in the evening or weekends but others will. Witnesses have to take several days of time out of work to sit around in a court building only to be called at the end of day three.
'Asking them to go in on a Saturday might be an advantage to them. We will not be expecting [lawyers] to come in routinely on Sunday mornings but there may be a case for being a little more flexible about what hours we work,' he said.
The minister outlined a number of other efficiency savings he would to introduce in the court process, including reducing the number of papers and calling witnesses - especially police officers - and defendants by video link-up where appropriate. Wright, whose portfolio includes prisons, said the Ministry of Justice was committed to 23% savings on its budget - around £2bn - every year until 2015.
But he denied this would mean a cap on prisoner numbers and said it was a matter for the courts, rather than ministers, to decide who would go to prison.
Wright did reveal that he would not support any reduction in the number of short sentences passed by magistrates and judges, despite criticism that they offer no rehabilitation to the offender. 'Short prison sentences do work for public protection,' he added.
'There's no doubt that the reoffending rates for short term sentences is pretty horrendous, but I am not of the view that all those who would have received a short sentence shouldn't have one.'
Wright said that those expecting immediate reform of the probation and prison service would have to wait. Four new ministers were appointed to the department in David Cameron's reshuffle last month and Wright said they needed to 'pause for breath' before introducing any new legislation.