Extended operating hours in the courts – bitterly opposed by the legal profession – have returned, at least for now, in the guise of ‘temporary operating arrangements’ (TOA).
The Bar Council strongly criticised the move, saying there was little evidence that longer hours worked.
In February, the profession claimed victory over plans to roll out extended hours, amid wellbeing concerns and also that advocates unable to cover them – likely to be disproportionately women – would lose work and could be driven out of the profession as a result.
However, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) never confirmed this and today Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland included TOA as part of plans to help the court system catch up from the pandemic.
A further 60 Crown Court rooms will reopen their doors by September – 290 are already open – while 32 Nightingale court rooms will have their leases extended to April 2022 and continue dealing with non-custodial criminal trials.
Judges will have the option to open courtrooms for longer under TOA. The MoJ said the measure – which would be completely at the discretion of judges – enabled a courtroom to run two lists, one in the morning and one in the afternoon instead of the standard 10am-4pm hours.
The move followed “successful pilots” in Crown Courts in Liverpool, Cardiff, Kingston-Upon-Hull, Portsmouth, Reading, Snaresbrook and Stafford, the MoJ said, “which saw more cases flow through each week”.
The ministry said no individual would be expected to work any longer than they currently do – but did not address the issues different hours could cause defendants, advocates and others.
Judges will also be able to hold pre-trial preparation hearings online.
Mr Buckland said: “I’m delighted that we can begin to carefully reopen more of the courts estate – increasing capacity significantly to deliver swifter justice for victims…
“Alongside our plan to have no limit on the number of days Crown Courts can sit for this year, we are pursuing every available option to ensure the justice system can build back stronger as quickly as possible.”
Bar Council chair Derek Sweeting QC said keeping Nightingale courts open until next March was good news, “but we need long-term investment, not a short term fix”.
He continued: “The consistent use of remote hearings where appropriate will help clear the backlog, but sentencing via a screen needs careful consideration and should not be routine.
“‘Temporary operating arrangements’ is yet another title for an extended court day. There is little evidence that this measure will increase throughput or allow the court estate to be used more efficiently.
“Following the closure of over 300 courts, it was assumed that it was reasonable for court users to leave home at 7.30am and travel for up to two hours one way, just to arrive at court.
“A longer court day will have an impact on all court users, particularly those reliant on public transport and with caring responsibilities.”
Law Society president I Stephanie Boyce said it was “becoming apparent” that HM Courts & Tribunals Service was struggling to find enough judges and staff to operate existing courtrooms and sessions.
“For the criminal courts to run at capacity, as well as enough court rooms, you need enough judges, court staff, prosecutors and defence lawyers. But years of underfunding and cuts including court closures, caps on judicial sitting days and lack of investment in legal aid have hit hard.
“When the criminal justice system and those who work within it are already stretched to breaking point, it is very difficult to see how any extended hours could work.”
She reiterated concerns that extended hours would have a “disproportionate impact” on advocates with caring responsibilities.
“Moreover, we are unsure how practical it will prove to implement such measures, given the demands this will place on court staff, judicial time and lawyers; or to what extent any extended sessions will actually increase available capacity in practice.
“It will be vital that the judiciary take full account of the views of court users before proceeding with any proposals to sit extended hours.”