So we have established that the government believes we need fewer courts in this country. As I explained here yesterday, this fact was confirmed this week by HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS), which announced the dates for five further court closures, the latest in a total of 86 closures. Clearly, we have (or had) too much court capacity.
On the previous working day, however, HMCTS and the Ministry of Justice informed us, via the slightly surprising medium of a blog, that they were resurrecting the idea of longer opening hours for the courts. The idea was first mooted back in March, when it was suggested that it would be piloted in six courts. That didn’t happen because of the general election.
Thereafter, as the Law Society Gazette explained:
“Inactivity on the issue since then had led some to believe the government had dropped the proposal in the face of widespread opposition.”
Not so. In the aforementioned blog HMCTS chief executive Susan Acland-Hood informed us that pilots will be taking place after all, over six months at Blackfriars Crown Court, Brentford County Court, Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court, Manchester Civil Justice Centre, Newcastle Crown Court and Sheffield Magistrates’ Court. These will involve various opening hours, ranging from 8am in the morning to 8pm in the evening.
As with the court closures, we were told that the idea of flexible court opening hours is part of a modernisation programme, rather than just to do with cost-cutting (although in the blog Ms Acland-Hood did let slip that longer hours might just lead to a teeny cost saving). Flexible operating hours, we were told, was one of a number of changes (online justice being mentioned again) that will “provide a more open and accessible justice system that is quicker, easier and more efficient for those who use it, those who work in it and those who pay for it.” Strangely, no mention was made of the need for greater court capacity.
So, apart from that cost saving, what exactly are the benefits of longer court hours? As you can imagine, the legal profession is not enamoured, as the reaction of lawyers on Twitter will attest.
Ms Acland-Hood promises that:
“Because … different slots would be for different cases, lawyers and judges wouldn’t have longer days in court – they would have similar hours, but at different times.”
However, few lawyers seem to be convinced of this. As any lawyer knows, the fact that a court will remain open until 8pm makes it far more likely that cases occupying earlier slots that overrun (and there will be many) will carry on until 8pm.
Possible advantages mentioned by Ms Acland-Hood include helping those with childcare needs. However, I can’t see this at all. Surely, court sittings outside of school hours are going to add to childcare difficulties?
It has also been suggested that evening sittings might help those who have difficulty taking time off work. Again, I’m not convinced of this. If, as will be trialled in the pilot, an evening sitting runs from 5.30 to 8pm, then with travel time it will surely still be necessary for most people, who work 9 to 5, to take time off in the afternoon, in order to get to court in time?
Then there are the early start times. As has been pointed out on Twitter, legal representatives usually like to meet their clients at court an hour before the hearing. This would obviously mean that they would have to be at court by 7am, for an 8am start. Would the court building even be open at 7am? And what about those who (inevitably, due to the court closures) have far to travel? Many lawyers travel to court by train – would they even be able to get a train early enough to get to court by 7am?
But perhaps the biggest issue is the effect of all of this on lawyers and judges, most of whom did not ‘sign up’ for such working hours when they joined the profession. Yes, I know that under the present system cases can go on late – I recall myself still being at court at 7pm on occasion – but regular inconvenient hours, often at a court far from home, is something different. I certainly don’t think it will do much for morale amongst the profession, and it may further discourage people from entering the judiciary.
Well, these things may hopefully become a little clearer over the six months of the pilot. I suspect, however, that whatever the response, longer court hours are soon going to be a feature of our justice system whether we like it or not, as clearly we need more court capacity, now that all those convenient local courts have closed…
The HMCTS/Ministry of Justice blog post referred to above can be found here.
Photo by numb3r via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence.