20th November 2018

There is to be a pilot for the idea of flexible operating hours in the civil and family courts. The trial will take place in courts in Manchester and Brentford in spring of 2019 and will last 6 months. If the effects of flexible operating hours are felt to be beneficial then no doubt the plan will be to roll the project out more widely.

The idea initially was floated in October of 2017 when it was planned that the pilot should include criminal courts. That idea has been dropped –  the new flexible hours operating prospectus states that this is because there are “currently particular pressures in the criminal jurisdiction”.

The courts traditionally operate between 10.00 am and 4.00 pm. That doesn’t mean lawyers and others work only during those hours – people are in court anyway well before 10 seeking to negotiate with each other and either resolve or narrow down issues before any judge hears a case or indeed seeking to avoid the need for a hearing at all.

During the 6 month pilot courts will operate outside those hours – very early in the morning and till late in the evening..  On behalf of the Government the Justice Minister Lucy Frazer said the idea is to make courts and tribunals more accessible to the public and to “…give people greater flexibility in their busy lives”.

A lot of interested parties cannot see the point of this pilot. Solicitors/barristers/others (for instance expert social workers who may have to give evidence in child care cases) will struggle. Particularly if people in the courts system have to get their own kids to school or have other caring or other responsibilities getting to court for 8am may not be easy nor will it be easy to be at court till all hours of the evening.

It is difficult to understand where the impetus for the pilot is coming from particularly since it has been abandoned for criminal cases where the government appeared to recognise the arguments against it – what is different about family and civil cases? Are there not “pressures” there too?

A parallel can be drawn perhaps with seeing your GP on a weekend or an evening. Here again the government was keen on ensuring “busy” people got a nice convenient service. Turns out many of us don’t want it though. As of October 2018 in a large sample of health areas 25% of such weekend and evening appointments were being left unfilled. Seems people have better things to do on a Sunday or at other out of hours times than going to see the GP. Well – who knew?

A couple of questions:-

  • Most people never go to court in their lives at all – is it so difficult for them on perhaps the one occasion on which they may have to do so to reorganise things a bit so that they can attend between 9.00 am and 5.00 pm? Really?
  • Is there an outcry amongst the general population from members of the public wanting to be able to go to court at 8.00 am or at 8.00 pm? Really? I mean – really? I cannot recall seeing any demonstrations about the issue lately.

This idea disappeared as noted above the last time it came up. And a lot of people hope that it will disappear again this time – after all – it is not as if the Government does not have other things to think about…..

Blog by Adrian Dalton, Partner