Thursday 27 September 2012 by Catherine Baksi
The Ministry of Justice has denied reports it has ditched or delayed plans to open courts at weekends.
But the Gazette has learned that a scheme to pilot weekend magistrates' court sittings in Liverpool has been postponed after Merseyside solicitors 'unanimously refused' to cover the sittings.
Steve Cornforth, president of Liverpool Law Society, told the Gazette the pilot was due to begin on 6 October but has now been postponed. He said the MoJ had given no reason for the postponement, but Cornforth suggested it could have been linked to the area's solicitors 'unanimously refusing' to volunteer to cover a weekend duty rota.
Nothwithstanding the fact that solicitors will not be paid extra to attend the weekend sittings, and the cost implications for others in the justice system, Cornforth insisted the extended sittings are unnecessary anyway.
'Even after the closure of courts in Knowsley and Southport, Liverpool Magistrates' Court (pictured) does not have enough court business to fill it Monday to Friday,' he said. Earlier this month, the Gazette reported that Manchester solicitors had agreed to boycott the pilot in their area.
Newspapers reported this week that pilot schemes planned for eight areas including Nottingham, Staffordshire and Birmingham had been ditched or put on hold indefinitely, and that trialling in County Durham had been suspended as funding constraints meant the local prison was unable to receive prisoners at the weekend. However, an MoJ spokeswoman said none of the planned pilots had been either postponed or cancelled, adding: 'Nothing has changed.'
She also said pilots were going ahead in Cardiff, Neath, Bridgend, Southampton, Bristol, Chelmsford and 'several areas in the north-east'.
Defending the plans announced by his predecessor in July, justice minister Damian Green said: 'The experience from last summer's riots showed that putting offenders before a court swiftly is in the interests of victims and witnesses, and brings them face to face with the consequences of their actions.'
He added: 'We are improving the use of video links in court and working with local areas to test whether a more flexible criminal justice system, including courts sitting outside traditional hours, is better able to achieve this. We are determined to create a system that works in the interests of those who use it.'