Extended court hours

The Sheffield Palais de Justice
Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) is trialling extended court opening hours in several courts across the country. The courts will be open 8am til 8pm – some will open from 8am til 6.30pm while others will start later and finish at 8.45pm. I’m not entirely clear what time the late finishing courts will start no doubt because I’m one of the many ill-informed lawyers of whom Lord Justice Fulford spoke. Of course, I might be a little more informed if HMCTS actually told us the plan but there you go.

The hope for extending court opening hours is that HMCTS will be able to make better use of the existing court buildings, which is fair enough if there is a shortage of courts available to head cases. But, is there a shortage of courtrooms?

Monday last, I attended Thames Magistrates’ Court to act as duty solicitor for courtroom 1. I arrived to find that court 1 had been closed for the day due to a lack of staff to operate it. Historically, Thames has been the busiest magistrates’ court in the country. Today though it is so short staffed that courtrooms are being routinely closed.
Provisional extended court sitting times
A provisional timetable for the pilot at Sheffield has been revealed on Twitter – try as I might I cannot find a document setting out this information on HMCTS website… I know, I’m just too ill-informed Lord Fulford - the most striking thing about it is the number of courts and just how infrequently they are open during normal sitting times. I only have Mon – Wed but it shows that only two courtrooms are open all day with up to 7 being closed all day!

Courts closed all day
Courts closed part of day
Courts open all day

Here’s a thought – maybe before HMCTS steamrollers over the advice of pretty much every legal professional working in the affected areas, why not try getting all the courtrooms open during normal court hours before you worry about extending the sitting hours?

In other news, I was recently involved in a judicial review. We waited months for anything to happen without news. A Crown Court assisted by trying to contact the Administrative Court to find out what was happening, even they couldn’t get an answer. Maybe HMCTS should look at funding courts properly so people aren’t waiting months for applications in senior courts? If you want to extend opening hours why not start there? Oh and you could abolish the long summer holidays that the senior courts take while you’re at it – that might get appeals down below a year or two to complete.

While I’m writing about this topic I thought I’d take a moment to dispel a couple of myths.

First, for most lawyers the working day does not start when he or she walks into court and it doesn’t end when they leave. The prosecutor opposing me this morning told me he was working on the case until 1am this morning getting ready for trial; personally, I put in 20 hours work over a couple of moths getting everything ready for this trial. The point is that an awful lot of the work done by solicitors takes place away from the courtroom making sure everything is ready for the big day in court.

This brings me on to the second myth: other people work shifts, so can lawyers! The answer to this harks back to my first myth – shift work in courts doesn’t work when the people involved have to prepare for hours on end for those shifts. This is something that shop workers, police officers, nurses, etc do not have to routinely do. There’s also the important point that solicitors are expected to be on call to attend police stations at any time of the day or night. For many very small firms that may mean that one or two people are on call 24 hours a day, 7 seven days a week

The third myth I want to address is that firms actually have the resources to implement this long term. I’ve read a lot of people who are incredulous at the idea that solicitors are not the wealthiest in society with cash to burn. Let me put it this way, I reached the conclusion that legal aid was not a viable way to make money six years ago in 2011 and I handed back my legal aid contract. Since then rates have been cut even further and I have no idea how anybody is still in business – in fact I’ve been told by a friend who still does legal aid work that he treats police station and magistrates work as loss leaders, a way to bring what he considers the more profitable Crown Court. Firms simply do not have the money to pay staff to work unsocial hours and staffing is almost certainly the major expense for most of these firms.

Fourth and final myth: this is something new that hasn’t been tried before. In fact there’s been plenty of trial all of which ended in failure. About 10 or so years ago we had “night courts” where cases were heard until 10pm. It lasted a little while and was then dumped. In Reading magistrates court extended hours were trialled not long ago. I know, because today I managed to speak to an advocate and legal adviser who took part in that pilot. The advocate reported that the CPS struggled to find advocates to cover their cases meaning that one advocate worked the entire day – something we are promised will never happen in the current pilot. The legal adviser said that she and her colleagues struggled to cope with the work load and in the end all of the legal advisers simply refused to continue with the pilot at which point it ended.

In conclusion, court sittings times are not a solicitors normal working hours and each court attendance requires in-depth preparation away from court, something which differentiates lawyers from most shift workers. Extending court hours has been tried many times before, each time ending in utter failure. Finally, and most importantly, courts are hugely underutilised during normal sitting hours at the moment. Before wasting time and money on extending court hours HMCTS should try to fill up the empty courtrooms that currently sit empty during the day.


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