Flexible operating hours revived with civil and family court pilots

Walker: Still very concerned about implications of early starts and late finishes

The Ministry of Justice today put flexible operating hours (FOH) for courts back on the table, but its proposed pilots will be in civil and family only.

The six-month pilots should start next spring in Brentford County Court in West London, and Manchester Civil Justice Centre.

HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) said it has listened to the concerns raised following a ‘prospectus’ on its previous plans for trialling FOH in six courts, published a year ago.

“We agree that there are currently particular pressures in the criminal jurisdiction and have therefore taken the decision to not proceed with pilots in the magistrates’ and Crown Courts.”

A draft timetable for Brentford included in the new prospectus envisages sessions running from 8-10.30am to handle warrant suspensions, civil applications lasting less than 30 minutes, and adjourned possession work.

In that court, the normal day would then begin, with a new judge, running to the adjusted times of 10.45am-1.45pm, and 2.45-4.45pm.

In another courtroom, it would be a normal 10-4 day, and then a new judge would come in to run a 4.30-7pm session.

This would deal with up to two small claims of less than 90 minutes each, telephone case management hearings and civil applications of less than 60 minutes.

The matters heard in the FOH sessions will still also be dealt with during the normal court day.

That will be the same in Manchester, where initially the extra sessions will be in the afternoons.

The civil courts will hear small claims, housing possession (subject to changes to the rota for provision of a duty solicitor), Chancery applications, and part 8/stage 3 RTA applications.

The family courts will hold first hearing directions and appointments, financial dispute appointments, infant approval hearings, financial dispute resolution appointments, and occasional urgent work which is sat at short notice.

HMCTS stressed that it has not made any decisions to roll out FOH nationwide or in other jurisdictions, and said it was just one aspect of the major court modernisation programme.

“We would only do so based on robust evidence and data gathered through piloting with a comprehensive evaluation of the impacts, the costs, and the benefits across the justice system understanding the effects of the reform programme.”

IFF Research and Frontier Economics have been appointed the joint independent evaluators of the pilots.

The prospectus added: “We want to clarify that, even in the event of a successful pilot, we think it is unlikely that it would make sense to introduce FOH as ‘the new normal’ in every courtroom across England & Wales.

“We are testing FOH on a small scale because we think that it may have the potential to be a useful part of how some courts operate – depending on their work, and the benefits of flexibility for the people who use them and the cases that are heard in them.

“We think that the most likely patterns might include offering more flexible hours in a proportion of court rooms in certain types of courts (likely to be larger court sites with higher volumes of work).”

Where cases are legally aided, there will be an as-yet unspecified “pilot participation fee” for lawyers involved in cases that run wholly or partially outside of the hours of 9am to 5.30pm.

HMCTS said the evaluation would monitor the effect of FOH on court users’ personal lives and work/life balance: “We are clear that extending the hours a courtroom is used does not, and should not, automatically equate to extended working hours. Our aim is that people work differently, not longer.”

There will be an option to request that a case be relisted if attendance during a pilot slot is not possible. “Whilst this will be subject to judicial discretion, it has been agreed that [judges] will be sympathetic to any reasons given which might not have occurred during normal court hours,” the prospectus said.

Justice minister Lucy Frazer said: “We want to make our courts and tribunals more accessible to the public. This pilot assesses whether and how we can give people greater flexibility in their busy lives.”

Andrew Walker QC, chair of the Bar Council, said he was pleased minister have listened to its objections to FOH in the criminal courts.

He continued: “While the type of work involved in the family and civil court pilots is much more limited than that proposed in the criminal courts, we remain very concerned about the implications of early starts and late finishes, and there are many questions still to be answered about the practicality of these revised proposals.

“Family barristers, in particular, are already working under enormous strain, as are our family courts; and it would be unacceptable and irresponsible to place even greater burdens on them.

“We note that participation in the pilots will be voluntary, that no one will be required to work outside normal court hours, and that the courts involved will seek to give listing certainty.

“However, we cannot ignore the wider implications if the pilots lead to more permanent arrangements, even if these are limited and restricted to only a few courts.”

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