Overburdened criminal solicitors deride plans for ‘weekend trial courts’

Overburdened criminal solicitors deride plans for 'weekend trial courts'

Criminal defence solicitors have ridiculed a suggestion that summary trials be held at the weekend as a measure to cope with the mounting backlog of cases.

In a report entitled Respond, Recover, Renew: Supporting Justice through the pandemic and beyond, the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service suggested that weekend trials could be held in order to expedite the resolution of summary criminal business.

However, Willie McIntyre, of Russel + Aitken, told Scottish Legal News that he thought the suggestion was a “bluff”.

He said: “While it goes without saying that legal aid payments would not be increased, the other costs would be exorbitant, such as additional overtime for court staff including sheriffs and judges, not to mention the problems with having witnesses attend court at the weekend.

“Weekends are also the busiest time for police, so who’s going to cover for those cops waiting to give evidence? Then, of course, there is the problem with defence lawyers. Many like myself who have other commitments on a Saturday just won’t be available for Saturday courts.”

He added: “What are the partners of law firms supposed to do? Pay their qualified staff overtime, when quite likely the case will not go ahead – most trials don’t for one reason or another and when a case is adjourned due to lack of court time or missing witnesses, the defence lawyer isn’t paid by the Scottish Legal Aid Board.

“Personally, I think it’s the old political trick of suggesting a terrible policy and then introducing a slightly less terrible policy – in this case trials without jury, which the Justice Secretary has already mooted to loud objections from the legal profession – thinking people will say, ‘phew, that’s a relief at least we’re not having to work on a Saturday’.

“There are plenty of options available to reduce the backlog of trials, but the problem is the civil servants delegated to make it work have little or no experience of the courts and how things operate in reality.”

Ian Moir, of Moir and Sweeney Litigation, said he would be “astonished” if there was any appetite amongst his peers to work additional hours.

He said: “I’m not convinced that, with the ever-falling number of lawyers willing to do criminal work, there are sufficient numbers for Saturday courts, never mind funding.

“The job we do is very stressful and demanding and is already detrimental to family life. Making a six-day court week the norm isn’t realistic. The solicitors already feel undervalued and this will serve only to further damage morale which is already at rock bottom.”

Law Society president Amanda Millar commented: “The suggestion of introducing weekend courts is a particularly significant one, which would have a negative impact on an already under pressure group of professionals. Our Criminal Law Committee believe that no case has been made to justify this proposal, but we look forward to engaging in discussions about alternative ideas to address the court backlog.”

A spokesperson for the SCTS told SLN: “Saturday courts have been modelled by SCTS as one of the potential options to recover from the coronavirus impact on summary trials. As highlighted in the report, this option would require consultation and engagement with the legal profession, justice organisations and the third sector, as the resource impact would need to be assessed across the whole justice system.

“The modelling report was designed to aid transparency and stimulate discussion on different options to ensure that the right solutions can be tested and explored. Summary trials have resumed in our 33 courtrooms and some virtual hearings are underway. Because of physical distancing, the number of trials proceeding inevitably is less and as the weeks go by the backlog increases.

“We need to find a solution to prevent extensive trial delays impacting on the accused, victims and witnesses. We are also looking at the impact of increasing the number of courtrooms available during the normal working week for hearings and that too has resource implications for all organisations.”

Share icon
Share this article: