The chair of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) has called on the senior judiciary to extend wellbeing protocols being drafted for the family courts to the criminal jurisdiction.
Chris Henley QC said the wellbeing of those working in the criminal courts was not being prioritised or respected.
The president of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, has made wellbeing a priority since taking over the role and has encouraged discussions between the legal profession and each designated family judge to agree parameters for acceptable working practices.
He hopes then to use these regional agreements to create a national template to identify “the bottom line expectations that should apply to all court centres”.
In his weekly message to CBA members, Mr Henley said he had seen the draft wellbeing memorandum issued by the Central Family Court, which covered sitting hours – not before 10am, not after 4.30pm unless prior agreement and no one is inconvenienced – hour-long lunch breaks (and variations to a break between 1pm and 2pm should not be made without warning, and “considerate, realistic listing”.
It also said practitioners could send emails when they wanted “but there is no need to reply after 6pm or before 8am”, and urged judges and magistrates to be “understanding” of listing clashes and cross-courting.
Mr Henley said: “It is inspiring that such positive, focused, realistic and humane leadership is being shown in the family courts, at the very highest level.
“These enlightened, thoughtful ‘wellbeing ground rules’ are authentically designed to ensure that as far as possible the wellbeing of the barristers and solicitors, court staff, and indeed judges who work in the family courts is protected as much as possible.
“These modest adjustments will bring very substantial wellbeing dividends. This is what we desperately need in the criminal courts. This memorandum gives the lie to any suggestion that these things are in some way unrealistic, too hard or impractical.”
Mr Henley said the Bar Council, CBA and circuit leaders have “repeatedly pressed the case for sitting hours and email protocols”.
But “the sad truth” was that wellbeing was not being prioritised, he continued.
“It is not being respected. It does not appear to matter sufficiently to those with authority over the criminal courts who could issue a memorandum of similar insight, wisdom and respect to the one drafted by the Central Family Court…
“A wellbeing memorandum signed off at an appropriately senior level is urgently needed, displayed prominently in every court centre, or better still at the door to every court room.
“This would transform the current culture. We don’t have HR departments, we never fail to attend during a trial, we won’t be paid if we need time off, but we do deserve a few very modest wellbeing bottom lines.”
Mr Henley ended by challenging “anyone in a position of authority who wants to defend or explain why these things are not possible”.