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Adverse impact on diversity ‘not a price worth paying’ for flexible court hours, says senior judge

A negative impact on diversity in the professions was ‘not a price the judges are willing to pay’ for introducing longer sitting hours in the court, according to the senior judge in charge of court reform. In a letter sent out to the judiciary and representative bodies over the weekend, Lord Justice Fulford attacked ‘ill-informed comments’ by lawyers over the proposals for flexible operating hours.

The Criminal Bar Association chair Francis FitzGibbon QC last week called the flexible court plan scheme ‘fundamentally flawed’ and argued the plans would ‘choke off the careers of women (and not only women) at the Bar’ – as reported on LegalVoice here. Lord Justice Fulford wrote: ‘I am absolutely clear that a significant, detrimental impact on diversity in the professions or the judiciary is not a price the judges are willing to pay for more flexible operating hours. These pilots will simply help us understand if this would be the case.’

The judge insisted that the plans were ‘not a disguised attempt to persuade, or force… legal professionals and others to spend more time at court than they do at present’. The letter was sent to all judges via the judicial intranet and the Law Society and Bar Council, a spokesman for HM Judiciary said.

‘In my capacity as the Judge in Charge of Reform, and in light of public comments – particularly from members of the legal profession – I thought it would be helpful to attempt to demystify the proposed Flexible Operating Hours Pilots. I regret the extent of the widely-broadcast misunderstandings and ill-informed comments from a range of sources.’
Lord Justice Fulford

Fulford said that the judiciary was approaching the project with ‘an entirely open mind as to whether flexible operating hours is a viable goal’. ‘If it works it works; if it doesn’t, it doesn’t…a significant, detrimental impact on diversity in the professions is not a price judges are willing to pay.’

Meanwhile the Legal Futures site reported that the resident judge at Blackfriars Crown Court, due to take part in the Ministry of Justice pilot, ‘attempted to calm lawyers’ anger over the move’. Judge Hillen said the impact on those with caring responsibilities would be monitored. ‘Those who devised the system wish to test it,’ he said. ‘No one is being asked to make it work, but no one should be engaged in making in not work. It is to be tested, tested to the limit, but not in such a way that it is made to fall over.’

He said that there had been ‘a failure in communication with those at the coalface, and I hope that my relatively recent involvement will improve that’. ‘It will not surprise many that this is primarily estate driven,’ he continued. ‘There is a perception that court rooms, and indeed court buildings, are not efficiently used.’ The judge said there would be an independent evaluation. ‘This is very important,’ he said. ‘There are a lot of myths about that there is some kind of agenda and that an evaluation will be done by the MoJ or HMCTS, and the results “spun”.

The Law Society president Joe Egan told the Gazette that fees had been ‘frozen in cash terms for more than 20 years, and then substantially cut’. ‘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,’ he said. ‘Firms would have to pay out additional staff costs without any compensation. It is not acceptable to operate a pilot without paying solicitors properly for the additional cost they will incur as a result.’

 

About Jon Robins

Jon is a journalist and has written about the law and justice for the national papers and specialist press for more than 15 years. Jon is a visiting journalism lecturer at Winchester University, a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln and patron of Hackney Community Law Centre. He has won the Bar Council’s legal reporter of the year award twice (2015 and 2005). Jon is editor and co-founder of LegalVoice

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