Extended court openings – update

Blackfriars Crown Court - one of the pilot courts for extended sittings

This is a quick update on the blog I posted yesterday about the plan to extend court sitting times from 8am to 8pm in various pilot locations across the country. In that blog, I argued that courts are currently underutilised and that HMCTS should look to resolve that issue before thinking about sitting earlier or later.

I have now had a chance to take a snapshot of the Crown Courts across England and Wales today. I have done this in quite a rough and ready way by looking at the lists for each court and counting up the numbers of courts that are either marked as not sitting or that do not appear on the list when they should do if they were sitting today.

My findings show that 16.4% of the available courtrooms in Crown Courts across England and Wales are not being used at all today. In addition, there were a significant number where the courts were not sitting before 2pm or where only one case was listed for the whole day where you would not normally expect that hearing to take up the whole day. I didn’t make a note of all of those as I have better things to do with my time.

Courts such as Aylesbury, Bradford, Plymouth and Truro are operating at only 50% of capacity today, although three of those have 4 courtrooms or less.

Wood Green, Southampton, Sheffield, Portsmouth, Liverpool, Lincoln, Northampton Kingston upon Thames and Canterbury are mostly fairly large court buildings and all are operating with between 33% and 43% of their courtrooms empty today.

The two Crown Courts involved in the extended sitting pilot both have spare capacity today: Newcastle has 11% of it court time unused today while Blackfriars is operating at 22% below full capacity today. Adding two hours to the start of the day allows each courtroom to complete an extra two hours work but opening the two closed courtrooms would mean the site could complete an extra two days’ work at both Newcastle and Blackfriars!

A note on Newcastle, I have given them the benefit of the doubt about how many rooms are in use. I feel I could have counted them as having 7 empty courtrooms rather than the 2 I have counted since 4 of the court lists read simply “see list”. If there were seven rooms out of use then that would mean Newcastle is operating with 39% of its courtrooms empty.

While a number of court buildings have all their courtrooms in use today it is worth noting that 83% of those are very small sites with 4 courtrooms or less.

This information only applies to Crown Courts as there are no published and easily accessible lists for magistrates’ court. In my experience, there are far more unused courtrooms in magistrates than in Crown Courts.

Incidentally, I quickly totted up the number of courtrooms in use today at the Royal Courts of Justice and could only count 12, including a tribunal going on. There are at least 70 courtrooms in that building, which means today the RCJ is operating at just 17% of its full capacity. Somebody did point out that it’s August – the traditional court holiday month but maybe judges like Lord Justice Fulford who seem so keen on making everyone else sit 8am to 8pm all year round could try to encourage himself and his colleagues sit a full year?

There is clearly capacity to hear more cases in courtrooms during the normal court hours. The only reason cases are not heard in a timely fashion is because HMCTS does is not funding courts sufficiently so that they can open a full service every day. Given that fact, I am at a loss as to how paying existing staff to work overtime to provide less extra court time than could have been provided today by the simple expedient of opening all the available courts will help anybody.


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