Currently, most courts in the UK sit between 10am and 4:30pm with opening hours typically between 9am and 5pm. In 2016, the UK Government set about reviewing the options to extend court opening hours with a view to making the courts more accessible in the interest of access to justice. In May 2017 HMCTS (Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service) announced that it would launch a six month pilot scheme to test the proposals for flexible operating hours.
In light of the controversial feedback from the profession and uncertainty behind the rational for change, the pilot has since been delayed to enable HMCTS to take “more time to engage and discuss the pilots, picking up on comments made on how they could be improved.” The pilots are now expected to run from February 2018 and will be followed by an evaluation. We could potentially see these changes implemented from as early as 2019.
The proposals are as follows:
- Work involving litigants in person, applications and bulk work will be done between at 8am-10:30am and after 4pm.
- Courts will remain open until 7pm.
- Magistrate bail work will heard from 2pm-6pm.
- Magistrate court hours will be extended to 9:30am until 8:30pm.
- Crown courts will remain open until 6pm.
Pilots will test different hours in different locations so the proposed times above may change again before implementation.
HMCTS have said that the proposals in the Crown Court would pilot two four-hour sittings from 9:30am-1:30pm and 2pm-6pm. It has been suggested that the two sittings would involve different cases, judges and parties. HMCTS have also said it does not expect any individual to work more hours each day than at present.
The response from the profession has been largely negative. It is envisaged these changes will affect the diversity of the profession, having a significant impact on those with caring responsibilities (which is still primarily women). Those with children will be adversely affected as changes would mean increased childcare arrangements, potentially resulting in those with caring responsibilities opting out of a career as advocates altogether.
Notwithstanding caring responsibilities, these proposals jeopardise work-life balance. Wellbeing in the profession is a recognised issue and lawyers are increasingly citing work-life balance as an important consideration for their future careers. The Junior Lawyers Division of England and Wales (JLD) conducted a survey in relation to stress and wellbeing with the results being published in April this year. These revealed that over 93% of respondents had suffered stress in the month prior and key stress factors were high workload, lack of support and ineffective management.
It is likely that the work taking place outside of usual court hours will be bulk work and applications, which tend to fall to the junior lawyers. Junior lawyers are therefore likely to work early and/or late hours at court, in addition to their hours in the office, without time in lieu or overtime pay. This does not promote a healthy attitude towards mental health and wellbeing to those just starting out in their legal careers.
Lawyers require time to prepare cases and a day’s work rarely starts and finishes in line with hearing times. There is work to be done pre and post hearing, not to mention travelling to and from the court. These changes seem to be a regressive step away from a better work-life balance and lawyers having the ability to spend time at home with loved ones. At a time where the retention of women in the profession and a lack of female judges are key issues, the proposals seem only to add additional obstacles.
HMCTS are to undertake a roadshow in an attempt to engage with the profession about these reforms. A full evaluation of the pilot is then expected to be published with recommendations for further developments.
It is hoped HMCTS will reflect on their findings from the pilot and develop better possibilities to improve access to justice and the efficiency of court services as, in their current form, the proposals do not encourage diversity in the profession. As Chairman of the Bar Andrew Langdon QC has stated, “we need measures that will help women stay in the profession” at a time when many choose not to return after having children. It is difficult to see how court hearings held at 8am or until 8pm will encourage this retention.