The resident judge at Blackfriars Crown Court, one of the six courts due to take part in a Ministry of Justice (MoJ) pilot on extended court hours, has attempted to calm lawyers’ anger over the move.
Judge Hillen said the impact on those with caring responsibilities would be specifically monitored, adding: “Those who devised the system wish to test it. No one is being asked to make it work, but no one should be engaged in making in not work.
“It is to be tested, tested to the limit, but not in such a way that it is made to fall over.”
In a message to members of the South Eastern Circuit, Judge Hillen denied being a “cheerleader” for flexible operating hours (FOH).
“My personal opinions, and those of the Blackfriars judges, are neither here nor there. What is important is that you are informed as to what the FOH pilot actually entails.
“I realise that there has been a failure in communication with those at the coalface, and I hope that my relatively recent involvement will improve that.”
Judge Hillen went on: “It will not surprise many that this is primarily estate driven. There is a perception that court rooms, and indeed court buildings, are not efficiently used.”
He said that if the pilot, which is due to start in October this year, did show efficiency savings, that “could (and should) release funds for investment elsewhere” in the court reform programme, including “investment in improving the estate for all court users”.
Responding to criticism from barristers and solicitor that extended hours would make life almost impossible for those with young children, Judge Hillen said the pilots would gather evidence on the “equality impact”.
The judge said there would be “specific questions” on the impact on users’ wider work and life balance.
Judge Hillen made it clear that there would be “no additional funds” for the pilot, apart from for the cost of the evaluation, and if “there are additional costs to either or both branches of the profession, those will need to be absorbed by chambers and firms operating in the various jurisdictions and courts affected”.
The six courts involved are Highbury Corner and Sheffield Magistrates’ Courts, the Crown Courts at Blackfriars and Newcastle, Brentford County Court (civil) and Manchester Justice Centre (family and civil).
Hearings will run at different times of day between 8am and 8.30pm. Judge Hillen said at Blackfriars, one court room would hold two four-hour sessions, from 9.30 to 1.30pm and 2pm to 6pm, resulting in “a 60% increase on current use”.
The judge said the pilot was due to start in May this year, but was put “on hold” during the election period.
“The realistic timetable as of the time of writing is that the pilot will last for six months from October 2017 to April 2018.”
Judge Hillen said an independent contractor, probably a university, would evaluate the pilot.
“This is very important. There are a lot of myths about that there is some kind of agenda and that an evaluation will be done by the MoJ or HMCTS, and the results ‘spun’.”
We revealed last month that the Bar Standards Board was keeping a watch on the proposals to assess their impact on diversity, while Andrew Langdon QC, chair of the Bar Council, described them as “frankly, disastrous for diversity”.
Francis FitzGibbon QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), said in his weekly message to members yesterday that “irrespective of the evaluation”, it was essential for the CBA to “get as much information as possible from our members about their experience of the pilot scheme”, to assess its impact.
“That applies whether you accept, decline or return instructions for cases in the pilot courts. It is vital to have a record of what this scheme means for you and your cases.”