British courts to sit at weekends despite objections from lawyers

Fri, Oct 12, 2012, 01:00

COURTS IN England are to open for longer and sit at weekends under plans to speed up cases, the Home Office has said, despite strong opposition from lawyers.

Nearly 50 pilot programmes are running or due to begin in coming months, though solicitors in Liverpool have unanimously refused to have anything to do with weekend sessions, it has emerged.

Video links will be used more frequently to cut down on the number of times prisoners have to be brought to court, including preliminary hearings when a person is in police custody.

Pilot programmes are going ahead in Cardiff, Neath, Bridgend, Southampton, Bristol, Chelmsford and at a number of locations in northeast England. The changes were prompted by last year’s riots in London and elsewhere, when courts opened at weekends and sat late into the night.

“Putting offenders before a court swiftly is in the interests of victims and witnesses, and brings them face to face with the consequences of their actions,” said criminal justice minister Damian Green.

Nearly 100 courts in England and Wales already sit on Saturday mornings to handle overnight remand cases, usually related to Friday night incidents involving alcohol and/or driving.

“You’ve got these very expensive people and very expensive resources in terms of court buildings around: it clearly makes sense from all our points of view to use them as efficiently as possible,” said Mr Green.

However, considerable disagreement exists between the home office and others, with the courts service warning that lawyers’ objections would make the expanded plan unaffordable.

Local lawyers are also resisting the introduction of weekend courts in Newcastle, forcing the authorities to bring in representatives from elsewhere.

In Manchester, nearly every firm of solicitors has refused to take part in full weekend trials, though extended Saturday hours to deal with remands are to go ahead shortly.

Liverpool Law Society president Steve Cornforth said the pilot programme due to begin last week had been postponed after solicitors refused to take part in a weekend rota.

He said longer opening hours are unnecessary, adding that Liverpool magistrates’ court “does not have enough court business to fill it Monday to Friday” even though two courts have closed. The society rejected the plan as “illogical, ill-conceived and unnecessary” and said it would be too expensive to carry out.

Mr Green said many of those who have signed up to become involved are enthusiastic about the moves because they want to cut down on delays.