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September 14, 2012

Sunday Courts: A Kenneth Clarke proposal that Chris Grayling would do well to shelve

Posted by Jan Davies

Jan Davies - a solicitor in the criminal courts for over 20 years and the author of Criminal Justice Under Siege - explains why Sunday Courts are a bad idea.

Sunday observance has collapsed. This has been one of the most noticeable developments of 20th century Britain. I am old enough to remember when people did not put out washing on their lines on Sunday mornings for fear of scandalising their neighbours, when if you missed a church service on Sunday someone would call round to make sure you were not ill and when pubs were shut on Sundays before 12 and during the mid-afternoons.

Then came the Sunday Trading Act 1994 and the supermarkets were able to open on Sundays for a limited number of hours. The first time I went shopping in my local Tesco on a Sunday, I met a local acquaintance by the fruit and vegetables who thought it necessary to launch into an elaborate explanation of why he needed to be there. Pub hours became progressively more relaxed. For all but a few church goers Sunday has become a day like any other, but without employed work.

During the riots magistrates' courts in London and Manchester were open far longer. It was acknowledged by all those involved with the working of the courts that it was an exceptional situation which called for an exceptional response. Defence solicitors, like court clerks, police officers and prosecutors, turned out during the night and early morning to represent defendants in custody.

The Ministry of Justice saw this as a success, though for many all that was achieved was speed and the Court of Appeal spent a considerable time afterwards clearing up the mess that had been caused by over-hasty court decisions. Depriving a person of his or her liberty is a serious matter and ought not to be decided in a hurry – unless we want to have a criminal justice system like Saudi Arabia!

Now the Government, having seen that it can be done, wants magistrates' courts to sit for longer and to hear trials on Sundays. It will doubtless be argued that this will give defendants "choice", but this is the same government which has been busily hastening the closure of local courts so that defendants, usually with no money for bus or train fares, have to travel 40 miles or more to court.

In Thames Valley where I practise Didcot has closed, Bracknell is moth-balled and never used, and Reading is used mainly for trials and some sentencing. People are bailed from the police station in Reading to attend Slough or Newbury or even High Wycombe. For people living on benefit this is not realistic and there are anecdotes of defendants having to "jump the train" (travel without paying). One young man told me he had walked from Didcot to Oxford, a distance of 17 miles. It was not surprising that he arrived late!

It is believed that Sunday courts are the personal wheeze of fomer Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke. The Government is not short of lawyers, but they are usually barristers who have spent little time in magistrates' courts, if indeed they spent any there at all, and arrogantly assume that nothing important happens there. Crown Court judges are sometimes quick to make disparaging remarks when they have solicitors as advocates before them and appear to believe that someone who appears in the lower courts has no legal expertise. So it is not surprising that no one appears to have considered how Sunday courts will affect those involved in running the courts. The Crown Prosecution Service are not rushing to embrace the idea, court clerks are not volunteering for Sunday duties and defence solicitors are uniformly hostile.

But what is interesting is that few are deploying the argument of the religious observance of Sunday. There is no shortage of people complaining that it will affect family life. Overtime payments or time off in lieu of Sunday working are no use to a person with a child of school age: you need the time when the child too is home. There is no shortage of solicitors pointing out that this is being introduced hurriedly, with pilots in East Sussex, Manchester and North Tyneside due to start this month and pilots threatened in Thames Valley and elsewhere for 1st October. There has been no consultation, and no time for those running firms to consider how to amend their employees' contracts. Everyone wants the idea buried, but possibly no one has had the courage to tell the Minister the level of hostility that has been aroused.

In Newcastle "they" wanted a pilot. Court clerks said no. In North Tyneside 72 duty solicitors are said to have boycotted the project, despite threatening letters from the Legal Services Commission. In Manchester over 100 duty solicitors have also indicated they are boycotting the change, with Tuckers, one of the largest criminal firms in the country, denouncing the idea of Sunday courts as "a load of rubbish". But nowhere in the protests has there been an outcry to say that working on Sunday is quite simply wrong, that the Lord's Day should not be defiled.

The arguments are that there is no extra money on the table to compensate defence lawyers, although prosecutors and court staff are to be paid extra. There are complaints that Sunday working will disrupt family life, not that it will be religious discrimination, and that there has been no time for firms to amend the contracts of their employees. It has been pointed out that prisons are not geared up to receiving prisoners on a Sunday and that extra will have to be paid to those who transport prisoners from police stations to courts or to and from prisons. Few are as yet arguing from principle that Sunday is the Sabbath and a day of rest, and that running trial courts routinely is not the same as going to the police station for an emergency when someone has been arrested, which can be equated with the biblical retrieval of an ass from a pit. Defence solicitors can be heard singing from the same hymn sheet - but there are no hymns!

Perhaps the government would like to abolish weekends. In these straitened times of economy perhaps no one at all should be allowed not to work on Saturdays and Sundays. Perhaps crown court judges and jurors would enjoy having their right to weekends removed. Perhaps MPs could be available for their constituents and all offices and shops could be permanently open. After all this would be logical.

Or maybe this idea will be shown to be unworkable, costly and deeply unpopular, and someone will have the wit to tell the incoming Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, that it should very quietly be shelved.

Jan Davies has been practising as a solicitor in the criminal courts for over 20 years. She was a founder member of Reading Solicitors Chambers and between 2001 and March 2007 was a senior crown prosecutor in Oxfordshire. She now practises as an advocate in both magistrates and crown courts as an associate member of Reading Solicitors Chambers. She is the author of Criminal Justice Under Siege.

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Utter piffle. Courts do not shut on Fridays for Muslims or close early on winter afternoons for Jews. Christians must realise that are now just one minority among many. The Catholics anyway now go to mass on Saturday evenings.
The court buildings are an expensive piece of capital and the land could be rented out or sold. It is the duty of the state to maximise the return on these and save the tax payer's money. A levy should be charged on al lawyers who refuse to work Sundays and given to pay extra to those who do.

Posted by: Siddiqui at September 17, 2012 01:53 PM

Here is a comment I saw on Telegraph Letters*

* * * * * * *

I'm afraid the situation regarding our criminal justice system is worse than A J H Stone describes.

The lightness in how this offender was treated was not just because of sloppy thinking and poor sentencing by foolish Judges; it was because our criminal justice system sees such miscreants as clients.

This is further evidenced by Ken Clarke’s refusal to see prison as anything else but an opportunity to reform criminals. The fact that prison gives the victims respite from these criminal’s behaviour didn’t appear to occur to him in his continued appeals for more lenient sentencing. Neither did the fact that by the time the majority of criminals did time, they were far removed from their first offence and many others had suffered as a consequence of their actions.

This is indicative of a system that sees the criminals as the clients that it is serving and has forgotten about those who *should be* the clients… the victims of crime.

In my opinion Mr Grayling has much to do. The courts are in need of root and branch reform.


As Tommy Handley said of Hitler, so the Hedgehog says of Kenneth Clarke - It's That Man Again! He should be treated with a large dose of porcupuncture.

* * * * * * *

And as for Siddiqui wanting to destroy our weekends - the Hedgehogatollah Juje-Tighi'i has pronounced a FASWA (Arabic for 'fart') against him.

Posted by: HedgehogFive at September 17, 2012 09:29 PM

Commenter Siddiqui comes across as one of those who worship not God, but Mammon.

Although his name suggests that he is a Muslim, his writing has the tone of a native British Christianophobe, descended from a Gibbon, rather than from a Great Ape as most sensible people are.

vide On Abolishing Sunday, by G.K.Chesterton.

Posted by: Irish Neanderthal at September 17, 2012 09:37 PM

Listen Irish Neanderthal, if I am a Gibbon then you are a Fitzgibbon.
Irish Neanderthal is an oxymoron anyway . What a name to chose. Still your arguments match your name.
I looked up this Tommy Handley. Hedgehog must be at least 90 to want to quote him. I reply when offered a Sunday court, I don't mind if I do and can I do it now,sir. It will mean speedy justice, a right guaranteed by the European Court. Its opponents stand for the law's delay.

Posted by: Siddiqui at September 17, 2012 11:56 PM
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