Justice? Sorry, it's away on holiday

When August arrives, barristers head for Tuscany and the courts only hear emergency cases. But solicitors are concerned at being forced to offer a reduced service and are pressing for change, says Robert Verkaik
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The Independent Online
There are still some barristers who bid a fond farewell to their clerks on the last day of July, not to return to their chambers until the beginning of October. Most take their lead from the courts, which operate a considerably reduced service during this time of the year. The High Court, for example, hears only emergency cases with just two courts sitting throughout August. Those cases not considered urgent simply don't go on.

With more law firms becoming super-sensitive to client requirements, solicitors realise they simply can't afford to offer run-down services during the legal vacation. In the light of Lord Woolf's exhortations for a more efficient and modern court service, perhaps the time is now right to review the extravagance of the legal holiday season.

Peter Woods is a general litigation partner with Stephens Innocent, the media and arts firm which represented Paula Yates in her divorce from Bob Geldof and advised Anthea Turner when she left the National Lottery. He and his fellow partners are regular customers of the Royal Courts of Justice.

He says there are plenty of clients - only away from their businesses for the more customary two-week summer holiday - who demand injunctions and summary judgments throughout the summer vacation. In August in the High Court it's still possible to get to see a judge but all applications have to meet a strict test of being "fit for vacation business". "If the judge decides it's not," says Mr Woods, "you're in real trouble."

Nevertheless, when solicitors do manage to muster a team to work on urgent business their efforts are often stymied by counsel being on holiday. This is becoming a common cause of complaint among busy City solicitors' practices. "Quite often you find counsel has gone swanning off. But there are a few chambers who do let us know who's off and who's going to be available," adds Mr Woods. While he accepts that barristers do work very hard during court term times, he knows of some solicitors who haven't had a holiday in years.

Jonathan Caplan QC, a former chairman of the Bar Council's public affairs committee, concedes there is a problem. "I quite understand how infuriating this can be. It's difficult to get hold of senior counsel in August. They all seem to take their holidays at the same time. It's been something of a tradition but really it should be business as usual." He suggests a barristers' rota system so that there is constant cover for important cases.

At Stephens Innocent they've gone one step further and are able to call back partners from holidays if a case is urgent.

Mr Woods and Mr Caplan feel the time has come to bring an end to the anachronistic summer timetable, which dates back to when the landed gentry of the judiciary had to return to their farms to bring in the harvest. Mr Caplan believes the system of using three court terms needs looking at. He explains: "In 1996 I think this is very unsatisfactory. No other profession goes into a lower gear during August and September." Mr Woods adds: "It's an extravagance which should be brought in line with other public organisations."

However, a spokesman for the Lord Chancellor's Department says there are no plans to reform the term times or open more than two courts in the High Court during August. He says: "The general public tends to be on holiday in August and so there are not so many cases. Court staff are also encouraged to take their holidays at this time and not during term times."

It is hard to square this approach with both the crisis recently reached in the backlog of cases waiting to be heard and the message coming from Lord Woolf.

The LCD says that court waiting time is an entirely separate issue which is already being addressed. The LCD spokesman said there were no plans to link court backlogs with more court sittings during the holiday period.

One reason for this might be that it would be difficult to convince the judiciary of the need for change. A High Court judge on pounds 106,000 a year is required to sit just eight months of the year. The remaining four are technically holiday.

The LCD and the Bar Council are quick to point out that judges work extremely long hours during term times. The LCD spokesman explains: "During the holidays they need to keep up to date with the law reports and catch up with written judgments which they can't manage during term times." There are also plenty of law-associated events to attend.

Recently, an international jamboree of law-themed conferences, festivals and general knees-ups has grown up around the profession's extended holiday season. This helps to make life easier for lawyers who either can't find enough to do during the summer recess or need to be with other lawyers while on holiday.

This year, the increasingly popular American Bar Association's annual general meeting has been held in Orlando - home of Disney World and other favourite British tourist attractions. Unsurprisingly, the number of UK lawyers making the journey is expected to beat the record 100 who visited Chicago last year.

One City firm, which sent five lawyers to last year's do, justified the indulgence on the quality of the contacts they made out there.

This year the new Law Society president, Tony Girling, and the Bar chairman, David Penry-Davey, have joined the 13,000 lawyers in Orlando.

Generally, though, most lawyers tend to enjoy non-law vacations. A spokesman for the Law Society's travel agents, Hogg Robinson, said holiday destinations for lawyers hardly change from year to year. The Pyrenees and Tuscany remain old favourites but Benidorm is definitely out.