Lawyers' fury over plans for 8am start at Highbury Corner Magistrates' Court
PUBLISHED: 17:40 30 March 2017 | UPDATED: 10:07 31 March 2017
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Sleepy criminals will be dragged to court before breakfast under controversial plans to begin hearings at the crack of dawn.
Furious lawyers facing round-the-clock shifts have threatened to boycott Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court if a deal on working conditions can’t be reached.
The pilot would see magistrates’ court hearings start at 8am, or end the day at 8.30pm. Either way, courts would sit for nine hours, instead of the six they do at the moment. That’s not including any paperwork or time lawyers spend actually working with their clients.
It would also mean drug dealers, drink drivers and thieves being forced to get out of bed well before 7am, which one critic said was a plan “obviously devised by someone who has never seen a magistrates’ court in action”.
Criminal lawyer Greg Foxsmith, who regularly works at Highbury Corner, said it would be particularly hard on the many single parents in the legal system whose existing shifts mean they can take their kids to school first. Most courts begin at 10am and finish by 5pm.
He said: “This half-baked proposal is the kind of idiotic nonsense you get when the justice system is left to the bean-counters and a bunch of swivel-eyed special advisers trying to justify their jobs.
“Nobody ever asked for this or suggested it was a good idea. It’s hardcore for lawyers, defendants and court staff. What about single mums doing the school run and then going to court?”
The bombshell was delivered in an email from Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) to advocates this week. The HMCTS wants to roll out the six-month pilot at Highbury Corner, as well as Sheffield, from May. The proposal would also see two crown courts, including Blackfriars, and two civil courts working extended hours.
Greg, a former president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association (LCCSA) – which represents 90 per cent of London’s criminal lawyers – said there had been no engagement with the group at all.
He added: “We are trying to find out more about it. We don’t know if it’s any extra pay, or if employers are going to make employees work these shifts [without more money].
“Remember they are closing courts across London so people are having to travel further.”
Another LCCSA lawyer said the plans should be “resisted outright”.
Greg said the group would be canvassing members’ opinions and if the majority oppose the plans they will look at what action can be taken, including a potential boycott.
A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: “We are investing over £1bn to reform our courts to deliver swifter justice that is modern, more accessible and better meets the needs of all court users.
“We are exploring flexible operating hours in six pilot courts to test how we can improve access to justice for everyone by making the service more convenient for working people.
“These pilots will help us understand how flexible hours affect all court users and will be fully evaluated before any decision is taken on rollout.”