8am courts under attack from senior judge
Lawyers fight plans for early start and extended hours at Highbury Corner magistrates’ court
07 April, 2017 — By Koos Couvée
From left, solicitors Sarah Robertson, Lauren McDougall, Greg Foxsmith, Lucinda Nicholls, Tony Meisels, Abu Kibla, Jacky Joseph, Ed Jones and John Black at Highbury Corner this week
A SENIOR district judge has backed lawyers in their fight against plans to dramatically extend court hours at Highbury Corner, described by one solicitor as “pile ’em high, stack ’em cheap justice”.
Under proposals announced by HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), the magistrates’ court in Holloway Road will sit for three sessions between 8am and 6.30pm, or from 10am until 8.30pm. Normal court hours are 10am to 5pm, with an hour’s lunch break.
Highbury Corner is one of six courts chosen for the pilot scheme to “improve access to justice for everyone” by making them “more convenient for working people”.
But this claim has been ridiculed by defence solicitors, who will have to arrive at 7am to take instructions from clients, and would not leave until 9pm if cases run over.
The London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association (LCCSA) said it was completely taken by surprise by the announcement, adding that there had been “no proper engagement with defence representatives”.
It was backed by a senior district judge who has worked at Highbury Corner and other London courts for decades.
The judge, who did not wish to be named, said: “I took part in the trial of evening courts some years ago. I characterised them as ‘a scandalous waste of public funds’. They were abandoned after a short time.
“Defence lawyers will have to spend even more demoralising and unpaid time waiting at court for matters entirely beyond their control. That is both inefficient and unfair.
“Similarly, I wonder how much thought has been given to the inevitable change of working conditions for court staff.”
Greg Foxsmith, defence solicitor and LCCSA president, said: “It’s inexplicable. There’s no evidence that this will save any money.
“These extended courts have been tried before. It doesn’t work, and it’s discriminatory for people who have childcare duties. Court hours are like any other business. People want to work nine to five.
“They didn’t consult anyone at Highbury. It’s not been thought through properly. If they go through with it defence advocates will boycott it.”
The courts service consulted representatives from the police, Crown Prosecution Service, magistrates and the prison service but the defence community was ignored, Mr Foxsmith said. Court staff have also been taken by surprise by the announcement, he added.
Defence solicitor Lauren McDougall said: “I have a 14-month-old baby and I’ve got to pick her up at 6pm, which is already difficult sometimes. These plans discriminate against parents.”
Jon Black, defence solicitor and former president of the LCCSA, said: “This is to do with court closures across London. They’re trying to squeeze everything in and it will have an impact on the individuals before the court.
“Defendants, witnesses and victims [of crime] will all have to get to court at 7am.
“You might even get a situation where people will start sleeping outside the court, and some of course are [subject to] orders preventing them from sleeping rough.”
An online petition against the plans has gathered more than 2,600 signatures.
A spokeswoman for the courts service said: “We are investing over £1billion to reform our courts. 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.”
She added that “staff and other relevant parties” were informed of the scheme before it was announced.