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David Kirwan

Former senior partner, Kirwans

Quotation Marks
Squeezing those that work within the legal profession so hard that they lose the very passion that brought them to the law in the first place is a false economy

Squeezing the lifeblood

Squeezing the lifeblood


The concept of flexible court hours is questionable at best and puts at risk an entity that's globally admired, says David Kirwan

When the incoming Bar Council chair Amanda Pinto described the possible introduction of flexible operating hours in courts as “anathema to those with caring responsibilities” in her inaugural speech, I’m sure I heard a collective cheer ring out from solicitors’ offices, courts and chambers across the country. Many of us think the idea of introducing flexible operating hours to the civil and family courts is, at best, questionable. Doesn’t the worst-case scenario see the most vulnerable within our profession hit the hardest: trying to make it home and carry out, at least in part, their caring duties before racing back to court to represent their client with as much professionalism as they can muster after an already long day? When the pilot was announced in November 2018, Justice Minister Lucy Frazer said the new system was being introduced to make our courts and tribunals more accessible to the public. But what about solicitors, barristers, legal clerks and judges who have to become more accessible in order to deliver this public pledge? Flexible operating hours mean lawyers with caring duties, who already struggle on a daily basis with the balancing act that this juxtaposition requires, will now have to suffer further angst because they can’t accommodate client requests for out-of-hours representation. Those with religious commitments may also find themselves in a difficult position.

Even those who can accommodate such requests may feel aggrieved at the expectation that they automatically will do so. For managing partners trying to maintain morale, the introduction of flexible hours at a court near you is yet another obstacle we’re expected to jump, dragging our employees along with us whether they like it or not. And that’s before we factor in potential overtime costs. It’s wrong. It’s misguided. And it’s not what most lawyers or court staff signed up for. It is, however, all part of the £1bn transforming courts and tribunals project which is starting to have a real effect on the way our courts operate. As the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) appears to move towards a network of supercourts, we’re seeing more courts being closed while the operating hours of others are extended. Cuts are being made far and wide, there are cases being adjourned (often at the last minute) because no judge is available, and courtrooms sit empty. Meanwhile, reports have emerged that the MoJ plans to close an estimated 77 courts over the next seven years on top of the 127 sites it has already shut since 2015.

This should come as no surprise. HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) said in its response to the government consultation on transforming the courts, “as we pursue and implement more opportunities to settle disputes in a way which progresses cases away from our court estate – be it online or using remote links and technologies – we expect the demand for access to a physical court or tribunal hearing room to decrease”. It also sets out its goal “to move towards an estate with buildings which are larger and facilitate the more efficient and flexible listing of court and tribunal business while also giving users more certainty when their cases will be heard”.

None of this appears conducive to maintaining older, smaller courts – or, for that matter, the status quo. We’re all aware certain changes are needed to our much-loved legal system to oil the clogs of an increasingly creaky wheel. But squeezing those that work within it so hard that they lose the very passion that brought them to the law in the first place is a false economy. This movement towards a round-the-clock service might work for some organisations, but those operating within the legal profession have thought long and hard before embarking on many years of study to practice an area of law they love. Legal professionals and all those who work beside them are the legal system. To ride roughshod over their concerns is to run the risk of devaluing an entity that is admired the world over – and we do that at our peril.