An earlier version of this post appeared here
Breakfast courts for cereal offenders? The new proposals amount to a serving of cold porridge, and advocates will need strong coffee when courts start sitting for 9 hour days...
Defence lawyers who practice regularly in North London, along with the LCCSA and other representative bodies, were taken unawares by a recent announcement relating to a proposed "extended hours pilot", including one at Highbury Corner Magistrates Court. There has regrettably been no proper engagement with defence representatives about this pilot, which is intended to start in May, as reported in the Islington Gazette
HMCTS propose to pilot a "split-shift" scheme in Newcastle and Blackfriars Crown Courts, together with Highbury Corner Magistrates Court. The pilot Crown Courts courts will sit from 9-1, followed by a second session from 2-6. The proposals in the Magistrates Court are to start at 0800 (so arrive 0700 to take instructions) or finish at 2030 (unless sitting even later due to over-booking etc)
There has apparently been no equalities impact assessment of these proposed working hours, which may impact negatively on anyone with other committents, particularly those with childcare responsibilities.
The impact on employer firms with contracts of employment that include contractual working hours is unclear, as are the rights of individual employed solicitors to refuse to work the early-morning or late evening "shifts".
Self-employed Solicitor Advocates and counsel may feel compelled to accept work throughout the various sitting slots, again with negative impact and unfairness for those with conflicting commitments.
There is no information about any proposed additional payment for work conducted outside of the current usual Court sitting times.
"Working in Partnership"
An email of 27 March (reproduced below in it's entirety below at appendix 1) informed us :-
"...that the flexible operating hours project has formed a National Steering group composed of representatives from the Judiciary, Crown Prosecution Service, National Offender Management Service, National Probation Service, Legal Aid Agency and the Police"
The defence community appear to have been excluded from the National Steering Group. We have now asked to join.
The email added:-
"We have worked closely with the group and other partners across the justice system to develop the proposals for pilots and understand how flexible operating hours may be able to give increased flexibility for all court users including professionals."
It is unclear whether there was any defence representative in the "other partner" category that developed the proposals for pilot, and if so whom. We have asked for clarification.
Proposed Location and "Local Delivery"
There is no information as to why Highbury has been selected as the London Court for inclusion in the pilot phase. The email says:-
"Local Implementation Teams will lead the pilots with judiciary and cross-agency representation. This will make sure that our pilots are developed and informed by those delivering our services and who understand the needs of the local service users"
It is not yet clear who will be included in the "LIT", but we are asking to be included.
The LCCSA have asked for further details of the proposed pilot, and clarification of the little detail we have so far.
We will be canvassing member opinion as to whether or not solicitors welcome and support the proposed extended hours, or oppose the proposals.
If majority member opinion is against the new proposals, we will canvass opinion as to what action if any we will take, and what we can collectively do.
On 28th March we sent a letter with 10 preliminary enquiries, and we will share the answers on receipt.
An update was posted on 1st April here
Comments on Proposed pilot
1 "The arrogance of dropping this with a month to go is staggering. The claim of investment sticks in the throat when we know we have been bypassed to avoid fee increases." Solicitor, Kilburn
2 "The impact on women and carers will be significant, We know so many parents who free-lance precisely because they can work around school hours." Freelancer Solicitors Association
3 "We need to resist it outright" Employed solicitor, North London
4 There is a finite amount of work! A starting point should have been to analyse the total cost .This is difficult. Consider the cost implications for all the stakeholders:- court personnel directly employed , indirectly eg gaolers, security and transport, then there is probation , the cps and advocates, cleaners....If you extend hours what is the cost impact ?!
The police will often talk about cell occupancy as a cost, the reality is if police custody time was reduced to 12 hours that would have a far greater impact than a few earlier or later hearings which will clearly be a cost driver for no discernible gain. Greg Powell, LCCSA President
5 If these provisions were set out in the new contracts then employers should have been consulting employees on changing their employment contracts prior to accepting a new LAA contract, the consequences to E&D, flexible working etc....a firm could be straight to tribunal if they sought to enforce such a change to an employment contract. Managing Partner, Central London firm
6 Shocking proposals, another kick in the teeth for hard-working, underpaid professionals in the legal aid community. Freelance Advocacy Services
7 The CBA is working with others on a protocol to make court hours compatible with practitioners’ other needs and responsibilities. All too often, our availability is taken for granted Francis Fitzgibbon QC, chair CBA (in Monday message)
Appendix 1 -email from HMCTS of 27/03
As a professional user of HM Courts and Tribunals service we want to keep you updated on our latest modernisation plans. This latest update is about piloting flexible operating hours in courts and tribunals.
We are investing over £1 billion to reform our courts and tribunals to deliver swifter justice, that is modern, more accessible and better meets the needs of all of our service users. We have recently developed proposals to test flexible operating hours in courts and tribunals and have discussed these at a number of the professional engagement groups we host. We are proposing to run flexible operating hours in six pilot courts to test how we can improve access to justice for everyone, by making the service more convenient, and use court rooms as effectively as possible. We aim to start the pilots from May 2017 for six months.
Details of the pilots proposed within each jurisdiction are included in the PDF attached.
Why are we piloting?
A major driver of the HMCTS Change programme is making sure our future services better meet the needs of those who use them. These pilots will help us test ways in which our courts and tribunals can do this and how we can better support working citizens to access justice more easily and at their convenience.
In addition, we believe that there are opportunities for us to make more effective use of our courts and tribunals estate. Flexible operating hours is one of the ways in which we may be able to achieve this. It is, however only part of the full picture of a transformed justice system which would also include increased use of virtual hearings, allowing more flexibility over appearance location, and access to more services through online channels.
The purpose of the pilots is provide a comprehensive understanding of how adopting flexible operating hours working might affect all court users and professionals: victims, witnesses, appellants, defendants and jurors as well as legal professionals, the judiciary and court staff.
Working in partnership
To support this, the flexible operating hours project has formed a National Steering group composed of representatives from the Judiciary, Crown Prosecution Service, National Offender Management Service, National Probation Service, Legal Aid Agency and the Police. We have worked closely with the group and other partners across the justice system to develop the proposals for pilots and understand how flexible operating hours may be able to give increased flexibility for all court users including professionals. We have also discussed the proposals with all of our professional engagement groups and will continue to provide updates to you through these fora during the pilots.
The provisional pilot sites we have identified for flexible operating hours include:
Crown Court – Newcastle Crown Court & Blackfriars Crown Court
Magistrates’ Courts – Sheffield Magistrates’ Court & Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court
Civil/ Civil & Family Courts – Brentford County Court & Manchester Combined Justice Centre.
Local Implementation Teams will lead the pilots with judiciary and cross-agency representation. This will make sure that our pilots are developed and informed by those delivering our services and who understand the needs of the local service users
How will we understand the impact of changes?
Critical to the project will be the development of robust and detailed evaluation that gives clear insight into where and how the impacts of flexible operation hours are most felt (positively and negatively) and by whom. This will help us to understand whether flexible operating hours can enable an efficient and effective justice system which is considerate of the needs of the people and professionals who use it.
In coming weeks, we intend to work closely with partners across the justice system , including legal professionals such as yourself, to develop our evaluation approach from all perspectives. We will seek your input to ensure that we are testing against the right criteria and are able to include any key areas of interest in the evaluation.