HMCTS launches new consultation on flexible court hours pilots after heeding objections

Courts: Courts service says flexible operating hours desirable

HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has launched a new consultation on flexible operating hours pilots which accepts the possibility that extending the hours of courts, although desirable, might have to be abandoned altogether.

Billed as a ‘prospectus’ seeking feedback and accompanying an invitation to tender for an independent organisation to assess the pilots, the consultation presented a range of options to be trialled to make better use of the courts estate, including double shifts and mixed Crown Court and magistrates’ court sittings.

It also confirmed that “professional and public court users are not expected to attend court for longer periods than they do at present; we are asking people to work different but not longer hours”.

HMCTS chief executive Susan Acland-Hood announced in September that the pilots had been delayed after an outcry from the profession and judges, who complained that extended hours would be problematic for diversity.

She said the pilots would be reintroduced once “we have taken more time to engage and discuss [them], picking up on comments made on how they could be improved”.

The prospectus, Flexible operating hours pilots, which invites feedback by 1 December, included the assurance that: “We may… conclude that these pilots have shown it is not possible to implement flexible operating hours and that we should not be pursuing it further.”

Adopting a conciliatory tone, the document said: “We recognise that a number of legal professionals have raised concerns about the potential for an adverse impact on those with caring responsibilities from flexible operating hours…

“The success of the pilots is contingent on there being no significant detrimental impact on diversity for legal professionals and the judiciary…

“We do not anticipate that fexible operating hours will be suitable for all types of work in court such as long, complex trials.”

However, it insisted: “It is also right that we keep on testing how we can use our courts more efficiently. It costs some £300m a year to run the current court and tribunal estate.

“Keeping expensive court rooms and hearing rooms empty before 10am and after 4pm, rather than having fewer, better-maintained rooms open for longer hours, has a real cost.”

The prospectus outlined pilots that would run in 11 out of about 2,700 courtrooms in England and Wales. They included double-shift sittings in the Crown Court back to back with a short break in between – the first from 09.30 to 13.30 and the second from 14.00 to 18.00.

These pilots would run in Newcastle and Blackfriars Crown Courts for six months.

Another pilot would test a combined Crown Court and magistrates’ court criminal court session in Blackfriars Crown Court, with the former in the morning and the latter in the afternoon. It would focus on trials and the longer session could mean one longer trial or two short trials were heard.

By sitting in different jurisdictions, there would be no possibility of the same advocate being required in both sessions, the document said.

Other pilots would test longer magistrates’ court sessions, including starting at 8am, at Highbury Corner, north London, and in Sheffield.

A fourth pilot of extended hours would take place in the civil courts at Brentford County Court. The first hearing session would be a half-day session from 8am-10.30am. Following this, there would be handover and change of judge and all cases. A ‘normal’ court day would run with adjusted hours from 10.45am to 1.45pm and 2.45-4.45pm.

In another courtroom, the court would run a standard court day, when there would then be a handover period and a separate judge would sit a half-day session from 4.30-7pm. 

A fifth, in Manchester’s Civil Justice Centre, would involve both civil and family courts. This would be a variation of the Brentford pilot.

Initially it would have two courts sitting an additional afternoon session once a week (on a Monday) – “as multiple courts on the same day will allow for more effective listing”.

“The pilot will list as wide a range of work as possible, with more ability for either party to opt-out of the hearings and with a view to later expanding on an additional day (expected to be Wednesday).”

A provisional timetable for the pilots estimated a summary of responses to the consultation would be published in January, with eventual publication of a pilot evaluation and recommendations earmarked for winter 2018.

The prospectus also addressed the issue of listing, acknowledging that this was one of the profession’s key concerns – the Criminal Bar Association said last week that it had seen a “surge” in complaints about bad listing practices.

The document said: “As part of the wider changes in the reform programme, the scheduling & listing project is developing a flexible system of processes and digital tools that will better support the judicial function of listing, and will explore the potential for greater participation from court users into the listing process.

“The flexible operating hours pilots will be exploring the listing practices which can make it a viable way of working, discussed locally through the local implementation teams. This will form part of the learning for the scheduling & listing project.”

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