It is an unavoidable truth that despite many years of lobbying, political discourse and, of course, limited but important legislative action, women still do not enjoy equal opportunity in the workplace.
This is as true in the law as it is in any other profession, if not more so. Making a successful career as a lawyer or barrister is difficult enough, but combining it with life as a mother is especially problematic. In the vast majority of cases, women who combine a profession in the law with motherhood, must find a way to successfully marry the unpredictable nature of legal work and all its travel, urgencies, emergencies and considerable pressures with the inherently demanding responsibilities of looking after children.
This is just one, but nonetheless, important reason why the Ministry of Justice and Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service proposal to trial early and late opening courts should be resisted.
Far from offering women the possibility of increased flexibility with regard to their working hours, the proposals actually only serve to push the rights and interests of women further to the margins. The only wonder here should be why the MoJ actually thought the proposals were a good idea in the first place.
Following the 2011 London riots, late court openings were trialled as a matter of urgency. However, they did not work, and despite the considerable pressure of the MoJ, were abandoned. Quite simply, late court openings did not fit in with the rest of the criminal justice system, including lawyers.
In a world where the Bar Standards Board, the Bar Council and the Law Society have all expressed their opposition to the proposals, it smacks of a certain arrogance that the MoJ or indeed anyone could possibly think that placing further pressure and irregular working patterns on lawyers could reasonably be considered a forward-thinking idea.
The Bar Council has already expressed its deep concern about the retention of women at the Bar, while the Judicial Appointments Committee has voiced its anxiety regarding the opportunities for women to work on the bench if the changes go ahead. Quite simply, the government is placing in jeopardy all the gains that have been made and risks setting the role of women in the legal profession back twenty or more years.
This not to say that it is only women lawyers who will be affected, only that they will do so disproportionately as, by and large in our society, they still take on the majority of childcare responsibilities. The issue will, of course, affect all working parents.
It is startling that those behind the proposals appear to have been oblivious—or worse, unconcerned—by their implications. It does not take a parenting expert, or even a parent, to understand that if hearings begin at 8am and end at 8.30pm, lawyers with childcare responsibilities are likely to find it all but impossible to continue to work at these times, particularly as it generally takes an hour either side for lawyers to prepare and to process court action.
And while the childcare issue might be the most compelling argument against the proposals, it is not the only issue. There are also serious matters of practical work-life balance at play and, of course, factors around mental health, unpredictable working hours, and the necessity of downtime. And then there is the issue of pay.
Law Society president Robert Bourns recently commented, "Solicitors representing people accused of wrongdoing already attend police stations at any time during the day or night under the duty rota scheme. Fees for criminal legal aid work have not increased for more than 20 years – indeed they have been cut – and criminal legal aid practices already operate at little or no profit. Under this new government plan solicitors would be expected to attend court during unsocial hours for no uplift in pay.”
There are also a number of concerns regarding late opening hours and the possible impact upon access to justice. The importance of defence practitioners has been egregiously overlooked by successive governments and now these lawyers are being asked to make themselves available without any reassurance as to how they will be remunerated. Potentially, they will choose to make themselves unavailable, and under the circumstances it would be easy to understand why, but this has the potential to restrict access to justice.
There is an elephant in the court room here. If court capacity is an issue, perhaps the MoJ should reconsider its court closure programme. It should also come clean: the proposals do not encourage flexibility, they simply place greater strain on the lawyers who underpin the court system, particularly those who must factor in childcare into their work-life arrangements
In short, the proposals are a top-down imposition and don’t take account of those they most affect. They should be scrapped.