The government has published an evaluation framework for the upcoming flexible operating hours pilots, which are due to begin on 2 September 2019.
The pilots will take place in two civil and family courts in Manchester and Brentford.
IFF Research and Frontier Economics teams will evaluate the pilots to provide independent research evidence as to whether the pilot has been successful.
We will continue to sit on the Evaluation Advisory Group panel, providing expertise and guidance to the evaluators throughout the pilot period.
We support the need to make sure the courts are used as efficiently as possible and that they are accessible for all users.
However, we continue to have concerns that solicitors with children or other caring responsibilities, as well as more junior practitioners and solicitors from some religious groups, may be disadvantaged by these longer hours.
There is also concern that the extended hours will put additional pressure on a fragile legal aid system, with solicitors being expected to attend court hearings during anti-social hours for no uplift in pay.
On 21 May, we gave evidence to the Justice Select Committee as part of their inquiry into the access to justice implications of the court modernisation programme.
We expressed concern that the assessment of the travel times considered in the court closures approach has not been taken into account of the flexible operating hours programme.
HMCTS has defined a day’s travel to court as a court user leaving their home no earlier than 7.30am and returning home by 7.30pm.
Such a long benchmark will still impact on those with caring responsibilities, children, the elderly and the disabled.
The evaluation plan states the pilot will take a “methodological approach that is systematic and thorough in its exploration of court room use, public user and professional experiences, while reasonably acknowledging limitations”.