The news that HMCTS has decided to pilot extended opening hours in selected courts has been met with anger by criminal practitioners. HMCTS has confirmed that the "project" has been supported by a "national steering group composed of representatives from the Judiciary, Crown Prosecution Service, National Offender Management Service, National Probation Service and the Police." Defence practitioners are noticeably absent from this group which is staggering when you consider that they are essential to the smooth running of the justice system. To exclude the very people who ensure that defendants are properly represented and that justice is done is most concerning. The announcement states; “These pilots will help us test ways in which our courts and tribunals can do this and how we can better support working citizens to access justice more easily and at their convenience.” Access to justice will never be achieved in the absence of legal advice and representation.
Our members are aware of similar pilot schemes having taken place over the years and having failed in their infancy. The potential benefit of such a pilot is unclear. The potential increase in cost to the tax payer is however concerning. The prison service is currently in crisis and will be faced with dealing with prisoners having to be conveyed and booked into the prisons of an evening. The probation service will need to make officers available at extra cost as will HMCTS, the Crown Prosecution Service, mental health services and social services. Access to justice will be restricted as the “project” has seemingly failed to consider how legal representation will be made available.
The CLSA will be seeking to obtain sight of the impact assessments conducted by the National Steering Group. In particular we would like to know how criminal firms are expected to make arrangements for their employees to cover cases outside normal working hours? It is discriminatory to many who have child care commitments whether male or female. How are firm owners expected to remunerate staff and deal with employment issues such as working time directives?
Criminal practitioners invest huge amounts of good will into the system, both sides of the profession are facing further cuts and it is inconceivable to think that defence practitioners will make themselves available without there having been any consideration as to how firms will facilitate this. If legal representation isn't made available during the extended hours then this restricts access to justice which is a situation that could never be tolerated and achieves the direct opposite to the stated aim.
It is about time that government agencies recognised the fundamental importance of defence practitioners without whom the system would grind to an expensive halt.
Notes to Editors:
The CLSA is an independent organisation representing lawyers in England and Wales. Its members specialise, often exclusively, in criminal defence litigation. Its members are defenders in the large majority, but it has prosecutors and court clerks in its membership.