In this age of austerity, the court system of England and Wales probably knew that at some point it would be closely scrutinised to ascertain whether efficiency savings could be made. Because every single government body is being examined so carefully nowadays, it was only a matter of time until court opening times were evaluated in order to determine whether there was a more efficient way of doing things. This is why the flexible court hours pilot was conceived in an attempt to streamline the court system.
8am to 8pm justice
The government has considered the possibility of allowing courts the option to remain open between the hours of 8am and 8pm as they believe this will allow more people to access the court system. It is also thought that such a scheme could realise efficiency savings for the public purse. However, when one undertakes any form of research on this controversial issue, it soon becomes abundantly clear that nearly every entity connected with the legal profession is vehemently opposed to this scheme in some way or other. Indeed, this is probably why the C.E.O. of Her Majesty’s Court and Tribunal Service, Susan Acland-Hood, has recently announced that there will be a delay in the introduction of this pilot scheme until February 2018 at the earliest.
86 court closures
Many legal professionals would maintain that the court system of England and Wales has already seen cuts that are proportionate to what other government bodies have had to endure, with 86 courts having been closed across the two countries. Moreover, there seems to be an adamant consensus that there would be far better ways of streamlining the court system in England and Wales than by introducing this new flexible court hours scheme.
Legal professionals believe that the overall accuracy of scheduling should be investigated more thoroughly. At present, realistic lengths of time are not allotted to specific cases and it has been suggested that some courts are currently running at a mere 50% of their potential capacity.
Prior similar pilot schemes
When England experienced the riots of 2011 and in 2013, a total of 42 Magistrates’ courts were involved in similar trials of extended court hours, and it is widely accepted that this was a complete failure. In their defence, the government has acknowledged this and done their best to ensure that the reasons behind this failure were recognised and addressed in the current pilot scheme.
Even more serious concerns
The Law Society and the Bar Council have expressed their concerns over their respective members having to work long hours and not being remunerated accordingly. While a legal representative would probably not be expected to attend both morning and evening sessions in court on the same day, this would not work in practice for duty solicitors who may be called upon to attend a defendant at very unsociable hours.
Perhaps the most serious of all concerns, though, is the fact that intimidation and retribution against jurors, victims, witnesses, legal representatives and court staff are likely to increase if court hours are extended into the evening. Whilst it is accepted that such occurrences are relatively rare on court premises, this is not the case when it comes to people travelling to and from courts, especially in the dark: an unlighted car park, for example, could present criminals with even more possibilities to intimidate.
Finally, and just as important, there is the distinct fear that tired and disgruntled judges might extend even harsher sentences on defendants who are brought before them later in the evening. One would hope that such a situation would never arise, but when you consider the fact that judges are human beings just like the rest of us, this factor is bound to come into effect at some time or other.
With so many negatives in the background and such a vehement disquiet over the flexible court hours pilot, it is easy to see why this scheme has been placed on the back burner for a while. However, at this time, it is important to remember that this will merely be a pilot scheme when it is eventually introduced. This will mean that it is not a fait accompli; that is, it may not be fully rolled out across the court system once the pilot is finished.