It’s been another long day at a Magistrates’ Court in London, which is becoming the norm rather than the exception.
Today, I finished a Court duty at a little after 6pm, which is not late by current standards. Then it’s back home to begin the rest of the day’s work: conferences, case work, telephone calls, meaning I will work late into the evening. The rest of my work does not stop when I am at Court and the fact that Courts sit later and later means that working days are extending immeasurably. Of course, this is on top of “ordinary” out of hours work, taking police station calls throughout the night etc.
WICL’s EOH survey demonstrates that the legal community are overwhelmingly opposed to the imposition of extended operating hours. In the case of the Magistrates’ Courts, there is already a worrying trend of lawyers, often solicitors and junior barristers, being required to stay later at Court, over 53% of our survey respondents had to stay later than usual, with staying as late as 7pm being common and some respondents having to stay as late as 9pm.
This is having a demonstrable impact on lawyers’ family lives and mental health. You need only take a cursory walk around the Magistrates’ Courts to find lawyers who are exhausted and, in some cases, simply overwhelmed by the current situation. We at WICL recently received a heart-breaking email from an experienced and talented female solicitor who told us that “my personal situation is so dire that I’m contemplating a move out of criminal law – I’m sure I’m not alone”.
I am aware of solicitors who are reluctant to return from furlough due to concerns that they will be unable to meet childcare responsibilities. On that very point, I have seen lawyers, often young women, ask for their cases to be called on so that they can collect children, only to be met with an air of nonchalance.
The current culture seems to be that the backlog needs to be cleared, at whatever cost. We are not against clearing the backlog; justice needs to be served, but legal aid solicitors and junior barristers are a precious resource whose health and long-term future in the profession should be valued. It would be far better to properly fund the courts to sit during normal hours than to break the people who are needed in the long term to run the courts and if we lose the diversity currently in the system it will take at least a decade to regain.
There are wider issues. Solicitors’ firms are operating under more financial pressure than ever and extending sitting hours will raise issues about solicitors’ employment contracts and payment of overtime. Still more firms are likely to be casualties of the pandemic.
All of this is before any formal program of extended Magistrates’ Courts sitting hours. We understand that there are a planned additional 90 weekend and evening slots (6-8pm), as well as extra Courts over the Christmas period. How much more can the legal profession and our lawyers take?
WICL are always keen to support you and welcome any specific concerns and examples of issues arising from de facto extended operating in the Magistrates’ Courts. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Lisa Towell is a solicitor at Blackfords LLP, specialising in criminal law.