In the Media

'We object': Lawyers revolt against Ken Clarke's plans to open courts at weekends

PUBLISHED August 29, 2012

Lawyers across the country are objecting to the Coalition's plans to open courts at the weekends.

Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, ordered a trial of 'flexible' hearings to include evening sessions and full trials at the weekends after they were successfully used during the riots.

Prosecutors stood to benefit from the change, being told they would receive overtime pay and extra time off, but criminal defence lawyers were told they would not be paid any extra.

Leading legal firms have hit back at the plans arguing the changes will damage their home lives and leave them out of pocket.

They complain the changes have been forced upon them without debate and argue there would not be enough cases to make the scheme worthwhile.

They add the reforms will end up costing the taxpayer more because court, prison, probation and police staff plus victims and witnesses will all need to work the extra time as well.

The revolts are likely to hurt Mr Clarke who is attempting to remain in his Cabinet post in the upcoming reshuffle.

Certain pilot schemes have already been scrapped and others reduced as a result of the legal profession chagrin at the changes.

Manchester Magistrates' Court was due to operate full trials at the weekends from next month, but nearly all its solicitors are boycotting the change, The Daily Telegraph reported.

The paper also learned that more than 1,000 people have signed a petition opposing the changes at the Manchester court. 

The scheme is in place in County Durham however, where magistrates have been sitting for full trials on alternate Saturdays.

Michael Robinson, a partner at Emmerson solicitors in the north east, told The Daily Telegraph: 'There?s not enough work during the week, there are court rooms sitting empty.

'There are more important things in my life than standing in courts on a Sunday.'

Meanwhile, Franklin Sinclair, a senior partner at Tuckers Solicitors in Manchester, said: 'It is completely unnecessary, it?s simply so they can make an announcement at the Tory conference about the criminal justice system.'

The Ministry of Justice hit back at the criticism saying that many courts already operate on Saturdays. They also insisted the pilot schemes would be evaluated in six months.

A spokesman said: 'We are working with local areas to test whether a more flexible criminal justice system is able to better respond to the needs of the public, including victims and witnesses. 

This may include courts sitting outside of traditional hours during the week, sitting at weekends and increasing the use of video technology. This is to ensure we are able to respond to local demand and deliver swift and effective justice.

'We are currently working to finalise which areas will take part in the pilots and which models will be implemented, though we are expecting that extended Saturday and Sunday courts will only make up a very small proportion of the overall number of pilots.'

But Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, president of the Law Society, which represents solicitors across England and Wales, is unconvinced and has written to Mr Clarke with 'significant concerns' about the scheme.

While lawyers backed the Justice Secretary's plans to use video links and 'virtual courts' instead of physically bringing prisoners and defenders to the court room, many were opposed to work at the weekends, she said.
She added: 'If courts are to be operating as a matter of routine at weekends or out of normal office hours, this is likely to have a significant effect on our members? businesses.

'The Society will find it difficult to support these courts unless the costs and practical issues for the defence community are addressed.'