HMCTS delays flexible operating hours pilots and commits to working with profession

Acland-Hood: We need a clear evidence base

HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has delayed the start of the flexible operating hours pilot until next February, its chief executive announced today.

Susan Acland-Hood also made it clear that she was listening to the concerns raised by the legal profession about both the current problems with listing and scheduling, and how flexible hours might work.

In a blog, she said she understood why the idea was controversial with many in the legal profession, and had reinforced “the need for us to proceed on a clear evidence base”.

Ms Acland-Hood said: “It’s for that reason that, today, we have agreed to delay the start of these pilots until we are satisfied that we have a robust, independent evaluation system in place; and until we have taken more time to engage and discuss the pilots, picking up on comments made on how they could be improved.”

HMCTS had planned to start six six-month pilots across the country shortly to try out different arrangements to extend the court day – the earliest starting at 8am and the latest finishing at 8.30pm.

But the tender process run over the summer to find an independent organisation to undertake an evaluation of the pilots “has not, in our view, delivered a satisfactory outcome”.

Ms Acland-Hood said: “We’ve also heard from many people – including those outside the pilot areas – who wanted us to spend more time discussing and refining the plans.

“We are therefore going to reopen the process and re-tender for an independent organisation to lead the evaluation work. At the same time, we’ll make more information available and spend more time consulting with legal professionals in each jurisdiction, including those outside the pilot areas. This will mean the pilots will now begin in February next year.”

In the meantime, she said HMCTS would set out more clearly its detailed plans for each of the existing pilots and also offer opportunities to make suggestions for improvement.

The service would also work up additional pilots, prompted by suggestions that have been made in response to the original proposals.

“For example, it’s been suggested that we look at a pilot involving Crown Court work in the morning and tribunals work in the same courtroom in the afternoon – making better use of the building while avoiding extending the period over which any individual practitioner might be called on to be in court.

“Another suggestion made was to pilot a model that builds on emerging practice in some courts by testing a ‘normal’ court sitting day with video, telephone and virtual work taking place either side of that core day – again, aiming to make better use of the estate but with earlier and later slots reserved for things that don’t also require travel.

“I would like us to design both of these additional pilots in concert with barristers, solicitors and others who have an interest.”

Ms Acland-Hood also committed to working closely with the Bar Council, Law Society, Chartered Institute of Legal Executives, Bar Standards Board and others in finalising the evaluation.

There has been something of a campaign on social media to highlight to Ms Acland-Hood the problems that already exist about the way cases are currently scheduled and listed, and the message appears to have got through.

She said: “Unpredictability features in the system now, and makes it difficult for many to contemplate anything that increases the window in which cases might take place.

“Of course, listing is a judicial function and judges must always have the final say. They must balance many things in making their decisions, and there will always be a case for ‘warned lists’ while so many trials do not go ahead as planned.

“But, as part of our reform programme, we know we need to improve the way we do the work that underpins and informs those judicial decisions. And we think there’s scope to make a lot of difference.

“Our aim is that better technology and systems will help us all manage and progress cases more effectively, build better draft lists, and take more account of availability and sensitivity to change.

“Data analysis will also help predict the right rate at which to list, measure and track unnecessary changes and reduce wasted time and effort. We need to do this work, whether or not we have more flexible operating hours.

“We need to do this work alongside the judiciary; but I am also clear that it will only be done well if we do it absolutely hand in glove with legal professionals too, using their insight and their clear sense of what needs to be better.”

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