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Wellbeing at the Bar blog: Helen Randall

Court Sitting Hours

It must surely be obvious to anyone who takes a second to think about it that a barrister’s working day extends far further than the time they spend in a court room. Every case needs to be read in detail and carefully prepared. Trial strategies need to be planned, speeches written, applications drafted, and conferences held. Often the least time consuming part of conducting a case is the time spent in a court or tribunal conducting hearings.

It is also obvious that most barristers have to travel quite considerable distances in order to conduct cases. The vast majority cannot afford to turn down work simply because it involves travelling off circuit. Even if one doesn’t practice outside one’s own circuit, the geographical distances are often lengthy. It is 75 miles from Swansea to Aberystwyth, meaning 2 hours driving up and down hilly A roads if one is lucky and does not get stuck behind a tractor. If someone wanted to travel from Swansea to Aberystwyth by train for a hearing starting at 10am, he/she would have to go via England and set off the night before.

I say these things must be obvious because it is difficult, in light of them to understand HMTCS’s plan to introduce “Flexible Operating Hours”. The proposal is for courts and tribunals to operate shift hours, with two or three shifts a day dealing with different cases, meaning a much earlier start and/or later finish for the advocates involved. I say and/or because it seems to me perfectly possible that a barrister might be involved in cases in all three “shifts” and have to stay in court from the early hours ‘til late at night, before embarking on the often long journey home. Where then will there be time to prepare the cases for the next day? To care for those dependent upon us? To sleep?

By contrast the Bar Council has recently issued a Protocol for Court Sitting Hours. It states it is “not a direct response to HMCTS’s planned ‘Flexible Operating Hours’ pilots” but rather attempts to countermand the effects of early and late court listings “for the professional practices of barristers, as well as their ability to manage appropriately their professional duties, own wellbeing, and any caring and personal commitments that they may have.”. Both the Protocol itself and a recent article by Andrew Langdon QC, Chair of the Bar, explain excellently the effects of long and inconsistent court sitting hours not just on the wellbeing of individual barristers but on the retention of women at the Bar following having children. An extension of this argument would be that it perpetuates the gender divide in the care of dependents by preventing male barristers who may wish to do so from taking on a more active parental role.

Whilst the possibility of any positive outcomes if the Flexible Operating Hours proposal is introduced remains unclear; its ethos seems to me to be contrary to the values and assistance the Wellbeing at the Bar initiative seeks to promote.

Helen Randall is the Wales and Chester Circuit Representative on the Wellbeing at the Bar Committee and is a 7th year tenant at Iscoed Chambers in Swansea.