Solicitors could end up working seven days a week without extra pay to cover anti-social hours under government plans to extend court sittings.
Proposals to introduce early morning and evening sittings and Sunday courts were among measures set out last week in a white paper which aims to speed up the criminal justice system.
Criminal justice minister Nick Herbert said: ‘During last year’s riots we saw cases that normally take weeks and months being dealt with in just hours and days. We want this to become the norm, not the exception.’
But the chair of the Law Society’s criminal law committee, Richard Atkinson, voiced scepticism about the proposals which he said defence solicitors had not been consulted on.
While duty solicitors are paid an extra 25%, he said there is no provision in current Legal Services Commission contracts to pay other solicitors more for working anti-social hours. Atkinson warned that defence firms, which are mostly small businesses, will be particularly badly hit by the plans.
‘If courts open on Saturdays and Sundays, it will mean that criminal solicitors in small practices will be working seven days a week, but without getting enhanced pay rates for working anti-social hours,’ he said.
Atkinson said the Society would support ‘appropriate’ efficiency changes, but it is concerned by the government’s ‘obsession with speed’. He questioned the need for weekend courts at a time when the number of criminal cases is declining.
President of the Association of Prison Governors Eoin McLennan-Murray said there had been no formal discussion with the Ministry of Justice over the details of the proposals, which he said will ‘present challenges’.
An MoJ spokeswoman said the department is aware of the contractual provisions for solicitors, which are part of its ‘ongoing discussions’.
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