Authors:Sue James
Last updated:2023-09-18
“While we are short of judges and court staff, the flexible operating hours pilot seems ludicrous.”
Marc Bloomfield
As I write, the ‘flexible operating hours’ pilot is about to start and my colleagues from Hammersmith and Ealing Law Centres are demonstrating outside the County Court at Brentford. They are there to shine a light on the pilot and the issues it raises. The last Battle of Brentford took place in 1642.
Although described as ‘flexible’ by HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) it is simply about extending court hours from 8 am to 7 pm. The extended hours will be tested at two courts: Brentford County Court and Manchester Civil Justice Centre. Brentford is piloting early starts (8 am–10.30 am) and late finishing (4.30 pm–7 pm) for civil work (Manchester has just the later session but for civil and family work). It will run for six months.
As Hammersmith Law Centre runs the housing possession court duty scheme at the County Court at Brentford, I have been to pretty much all of the stakeholder meetings with HMCTS, the court staff and judges. I attended because I was concerned about the pilot and I have decided to take part because of those concerns. I know others have decided to boycott the sessions.
The pilot was first announced on 21 July 2017 via a blog post from Susan Acland-Hood. Then things went a bit quiet in 2018 while HMCTS tendered for consultants to oversee the pilot and set up an Advisory Evaluation Group.
The Evaluation plan for revised flexible operating hours pilots was prepared for HMCTS by IFF Research and Frontier Economics and completed on 28 June 2019. They will evaluate the research. I wonder at what cost. My initials appear frequently on the minutes of the stakeholder meetings – questioning the purpose and the detail of the pilot. My voice doesn’t have a monetary value in this justice system, though. I have not been paid for any of the meetings or my contribution.
The pilot rationale is: ‘The current usual sitting hours of 10 am–4.30 pm (including 1 hour for lunch) do not make best use of the courts’ estate and are not convenient for public users’ (page 4 of the evaluation plan). The primary benefit that the pilots are hoping to deliver is ‘a more efficient use of court rooms’ (para 1.3, page 3 of the evaluation plan). Everything else is secondary.
So how will it work?
The pilot started on 2 September 2019 and will run for six months. The court will stagger the listing of cases in the early (8 am–10.30 am) and later slots (4.30 pm–7 pm) beginning with Tuesday mornings and Wednesday evenings in the first two weeks. Weeks three to nine will see the pilot extend into Thursday evenings and Friday mornings. Weeks 10–12 will have an additional late slot on Wednesdays.
Cases listed will be a mixture of warrants, civil applications, adjourned possession work, small claims and telephone case management hearings. The Legal Aid Agency will pay a pilot participation fee for attendance at the early or late session by an advocate (solicitors and counsel) of £50 per case in excess of the usual legal aid rate. If a duty solicitor attends, then a flat fee of £100 per session will be paid.
You will be able to opt out as claimant, defendant or advocate before the hearing. I understand that this has already started to happen as people are rejecting the early time slots. There is a dedicated phone line for people to call outside of the core court hours and security will be present at all sessions. No additional staff will be recruited.
At the stakeholder meetings, I continually raised the issue of equality and diversity regarding clients and advocates with caring responsibilities. There seems to be a pervading idea that people want to pop into court on their way to or from work. Anyone using the courts will know that this is unlikely, even if it is desired. The evaluation of the plan will involve questionnaires and telephone interviews with court users and representatives. I hope people will respond.
What concerns me most is that the extended operating hours fit nicely with the reduction in the court estate – creating remote super-courts open 11 hours a day.
The evaluation plan accepts that it is ‘likely to be difficult to draw firm conclusions about the potential scalability of the pilots from this evaluation’, merely stating that it ‘should be able to determine whether or not there is likely to be value in exploring the … concept further’ (para 10.7, page 44). What concerns me most is that the extended operating hours fit nicely with the reduction in the court estate – creating remote super-courts open 11 hours a day.
If court rooms weren’t permanently empty at the County Court at Brentford, or in the majority of civil and criminal courts across England and Wales, then I could see the logic of the pilot. We know there are lengthy delays in hearings –denying justice for many – but this isn’t about investing more money or recruiting more judges to fill the empty court rooms. At a time when there’s a chronic shortage of judges to hear cases and a severe reduction in court staff in the normal court hours, this pilot just seems ludicrous. It leaves one with the feeling that HMCTS is just fiddling (at great cost) while the whole justice system burns.