Coronavirus and Fee-Paid Judges

I write as Chairman of the UKAFPJ, and on behalf of the Committee, to let you know what we have been doing to promote the interests of fee-paid judges in this difficult time.

First, let me say that, as is self-evident, the only purpose for which this Association exists is to promote such interests and to assist those involved in the administration of justice. The Committee is only too aware of the anxiety that is being felt by our members, and by the wider body of fee-paid judiciary, in relation to both loss of income and of skills, and concern about how the fee-paid judiciary will be utilised going forward.

Second, we have managed to ‘punch above our weight’ because we have always adopted a responsible approach and gained in the process the respect of the senior judiciary, which is very valuable now more than ever.

All fee-paid judges want to do all they can, I am sure, to ensure the proper administration of justice, and to help the system as much as they can at a difficult time like this.

This is also, of course, in our own interests – one day the system will be back to ‘normal’, but it may be a new ‘normal’ and how we present our arguments and conduct ourselves now may affect the way in which we are viewed, and the extent to which we are relied on, in the future.

At the same time, we are, of course, entitled to point things out where we think we are not being dealt with as fairly as we might be or have legitimate concerns about anything which is happening or proposed. In order for such things to be taken seriously, we have to deal with them in a measured and logical way.

To this end, I made representations, using our available channels of communication, to HMCTS about payment for sitting cancellations during the pandemic. As a direct result of this, HMCTS and MoJ have agreed they will reconsider their approach, and their announcement on the judicial intranet has been amended to reflect this.

I have also made representations to the senior judiciary, using similar channels, in relation to the difficulties facing those fee-paid judges, principally deputy district judges, who have previously undertaken many sittings each year, and on whom the system has been reliant. They face an absence of sittings during the emergency period and possibly beyond, and attendant loss of income on which they in turn have become reliant. The senior judiciary will, I believe, press our case with the government as much as possible. As with anything that involves Treasury funding, this is neither an easy nor speedy thing to try to achieve.

In addition, I am, of course, emphasising to everyone, throughout, that fee-paid judges – whether sitting a few days a year when possible alongside full-time legal practice, or many such days have always brought to the system additional experience and skills to complement those of the full-time judiciary, and that we are more used to working flexibly than anyone else. Unfortunately, it is a fact, however much we may regret it, that many of the salaried judiciary are at the moment unoccupied, meaning a lack of need to engage fee-paid judges. However, when the current situation ends, there is obviously likely to be a considerable backlog of work, given the sheer number of adjournments of trials and other hearings currently taking place.

I cannot make any promises in relation to what might happen in the short-term, but all fee-paid judges may be assured that the Committee and I are doing all that we can to ensure, in a responsible way, that your interests are taken into account.

In the other direction, we would urge members to encourage as many fee-paid colleagues as possible to join our Association, which can only assist in our attempts to achieve our aims, both now and in the future.

Steven Gasztowicz QC