Fury at plans to extend magistrates' court opening hours in Sheffield

Staff and lawyers have reacted with anger at plans to extend the opening hours at Sheffield Magistrates' court.

Tuesday, 15th August 2017, 12:40 pm
Updated Monday, 11th September 2017, 12:30 pm
Sheffield Magistrates' Court

The plan, by the Ministry of Justice, is part of a pilot scheme at six courts nationwide and would see the court opening from 8am until 6.30pm.

But the proposals have been heavily criticised by lawyers and court staff who met officials from Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunal Service in Sheffield to feedback their concerns.

They say the plans discriminate against women with children because childcare arrangements would be affected, costing staff money.

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Mark George QC

Lawyers also asked when they would have time to prepare cases for court if they were starting early and finishing late and questioned whether or not prison transfer contractors would be able to get defendants to court on time for the earlier start.

Mark George QC, a Sheffield barrister who is head of Garden Court North chambers in Manchester and represented some of the Hillsborough families at the inquests in Warrington, told The Star: "This scheme is rotten, it is discriminatory, it will have massively adverse effects on the family lives of lawyers and court staff and it should be binned."

He said lawyers would refuse to cooperate, adding other concerns included safety of staff finishing work late in the city centre and lack of remuneration for lawyers working unsociable hours.

Mr George said: "It won't work and it won't work in particular because the defence community want nothing to do with it and do not intent to cooperate with it."

Mark George QC

He added there was already a diversity issue at the Bar with large numbers of female barristers leaving once they had children because the profession wasn't flexible enough.

The scheme was initially conceived in March, but put on hold following the announcement there was to be a General Election.

The Ministry of Justice said it could not confirm the start date for the pilot, only that it would begin "in due course".

In Sheffield the magistrates court will open earlier and there will be three sessions from 8am to 11am, 12pm to 3pm and 3:30pm to 6.30pm.

Currently it sits from 10am until 1pm and from 2pm until 4.30pm.

The plans have also been criticised by the Law Society of England and Wales and the Criminal Bar Association.

The Law Society said the pilot could 'heap more pressure on fragile criminal legal aid services'.

Law Society president Robert Bourns said: "Solicitors representing people accused of wrongdoing already attend police stations at any time during the day or night under the duty rota scheme. Fees for criminal legal aid work have not increased for more than 20 years - indeed they have been cut - and criminal legal aid practices already operate at little or no profit. Under this new government plan solicitors would be expected to attend court during unsocial hours for no uplift in pay.”

In a letter to Lord Justice Fulford, the judge in charge of reform, Andrew Langdon QC, chair of the Bar said: "The reforms which plan courts sitting in shifts are an attempt to deal with the fact that the Ministry of Justice is underfunded."

He added the scheme would 'put back' attempts to make the Bar and judiciary more diverse

Susan Acland-Hood, chief executive of Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunal Service, said the pilot would be independently evaluated.

In an online blog she said: "Many people find the justice system difficult to navigate, slow, and restrictive.

"We want to make it work better, by building it around the needs of our citizens.

"Being able to do things more flexibly, more often online, and outside office hours matters to everyone using the justice system, and particularly to many vulnerable users, and to litigants in person.

"We are bringing forward changes to provide a more open and accessible justice system that is quicker, easier and more efficient for those who use it, those who work in it and those who pay for it."

A HM Courts and Tribunals Service spokesperson said: “We want to test how we can improve access to justice for everyone - by being able to do things more flexibly, more often online, and outside the usual office hours.

“Therefore we are working closely with the judiciary and partner organisations to pilot flexible working, to see how it can help those accessing courts but also those who need more flexibility.

“The results of the pilots will be fully evaluated before any decision is taken on any rollout.”

The MOJ looked at court operating hours in Australia, the US and Hong Kong before setting out its plans.