A decision to delay a government pilot trialling extended court opening hours, which would have heaped additional pressure on the already fragile criminal legal aid services, has been welcomed today by the Law Society of England and Wales.
Law Society vice president Christina Blacklaws commented: "We welcome this pragmatic decision, and we urge HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) to use the time instead to work with the Law Society to address our members' other concerns about the pilot.
“Fundamental issues in execution, resource and methodology must be fully resolved or the pilot will be unsuccessful. It is not acceptable to operate a pilot without paying solicitors properly for the additional cost they will incur as a result. There are also practical dangers for court staff, prosecutors, defence lawyers, defendants and witnesses, who could be leaving the court building five nights a week after 20:30.”
“HMCTS' unwillingness to proceed with an evaluation tender outcome that appeared unsatisfactory gives welcome reassurance to our members they can have faith that the eventual evaluation will be robust.”
The Law Society raised these issues at the local implementation groups, as well as with senior HMCTS and Legal Aid Agency officials. HMCTS accepted that they needed to engage further with the defence community on the design of the pilot as well as the evaluation.
If the pilots do proceed, the Law Society will be providing a simple feedback form in order to record the real cost to practitioners involved.
Notes to editors
The extended operating hours pilots were due to start in May but were postponed due to the snap election. HMCTS planned to test a number of different operating hours models, with some courts starting hearings at 08:00 and finishing at 20:30.
HMCTS proposed to run the pilots at six different courts across the country over a six month period:
- Crown Courts: Newcastle Crown Court and Blackfriars Crown Court
- Magistrates' Courts: Sheffield and Highbury Corner
- Civil/Civil and Family Courts: Brentford County Court and Manchester Civil Justice Centre
According to an independent evaluator, half of the sittings during the 2013 trial were abandoned and staff shortages at weekends resulted in adjournments with knock on delays as cases were relisted to be heard in the week.
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