As part of the court reform programme, HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) is piloting early and late sittings in civil and family courts.
Flexible operating hours (FOH) are not being tested in the criminal courts, following our extensive lobbying.
Flexible operating hours pilot
The pilot began on 2 September 2019 in two civil and family courts in Manchester and Brentford.
The pilot will run for six months and test:
- if civil and family court buildings can be used more effectively
- the benefits of letting people attend court outside normal sitting hours (from 10am to 4pm)
- how more flexibility impacts legal professionals (solicitors, barristers, court staff and judges)
Taking part in the pilot
At Brentford County Court, the pilot consists of early (8am to 10.30am) and late (4.30pm to 7pm) sittings for civil cases.
At Manchester Civil Justice Centre, there are late sittings (4.30pm to 7pm) for both civil and family cases.
Taking part is voluntary. For more details about pilot sessions at your local court, speak to your local implementation team (LIT). Email HMCTS to find your LIT.
Claiming a fee
If you’re a legal aid solicitor, you can claim a fee for taking part in the pilot if you attend court before 9am or after 5.30pm.
Evaluating the changes
The pilot is due to finish in March 2020. Before HMCTS decides if the pilot will be rolled out to more courts, an independent evaluator (IFF Research) will measure the project’s success.
This will take place over three months, and look at factors such as:
- public users’ experience
- efficiency of courtroom use
- speed of and access to justice
- the experience of legal professionals attending an FOH hearing
- the financial impact on individual solicitors, local authorities and legal support organisations
The Law Society sits on the Evaluation Advisory Group panel and will offer expertise and guidance to the evaluators throughout the pilot.
How to give feedback
If you've taken part in the pilot, we encourage you to share your feedback, to make sure HMCTS takes your views into account.
The evaluators will visit sites on 25 March 2020, or you can email FOHlegalprofessionals@IFFResearch.com to arrange a phone interview.
Interviews will last up to an hour and will focus on:
- how the pilot has impacted your ability to do your job
- your views on the effect of the pilot on how court sessions operate
We’re concerned that extending working hours in courts could have a negative impact on solicitors and other court users, including:
- those with children or caring responsibilities
- those with disabilities
- vulnerable people
- some religious groups
- legal aid practitioners
- junior lawyers
- business owners (as later hours may mean extra costs, such as overtime pay for staff)
We’ve asked HMCTS for more details on:
- whether solicitors with childcare or religious commitments would be exempt from extended hours
- how solicitors’ working hours will be protected (and how they tell the court if they’re scheduled to attend cases in early morning and late evening slots on the same day)
- opportunities to feed back on the pilot evaluation
We’ve fed back to HMCTS about specific concerns such as:
- pressure on legal aid workers
- that clients on low incomes may struggle to afford public transport at peak times (and so miss their hearings)
- how the system will consider court users’ preferences when scheduling sessions – without doing this, courts could be breaching anti-discrimination legislation
- that court users may be at higher risk of intimidation at night
We believe there are other solutions, such as first rolling out digital scheduling in all courts, which could make predictions for hearing lengths more accurate.
We’re also concerned that HMCTS has not considered the effect of court closures on FOH.
The government has defined a day’s travel to court as someone leaving their home no earlier than 7.30am and returning home by 7.30pm. But if your local court closes and the replacement is using FOH, you may need to leave much earlier than 7.30am to attend an early hearing at 8am.
We raised this in our evidence to the Justice Select Committee in May 2019.
What we're doing
- September 2019 – pilot begins in Manchester and Brentford
- July 2019 – the government publishes a framework for evaluating the pilot
- May 2019 – we give evidence to the Justice Select Committee as part of its inquiry into how the court reform programme affects access to justice
- November 2018 – following our extensive lobbying, the government announces that the pilot in criminal courts will not go ahead. It also acts on our suggestion to compensate legal aid solicitors for taking part in the pilot
- November 2017 – we respond to HMCTS’s proposals, pointing out the strain on the criminal justice system
- October 2017 – the government sets out its proposals for an FOH pilot
- September 2017 – the government delays the pilot to February 2018
- August 2017 – after we raise issues with LITs, and senior officials from HMCTS and the Legal Aid Agency, the government agrees it needs to engage more with criminal defence solicitors before starting the pilot
- May 2017 – FOH pilot is pushed back due to snap election