12 Questions for on Flexible Opening Hours - Truth sought from HMCTS
The long anticipated Flexible Opening Hours pilot is expected to start after the summer break at Blackfriars Crown Court, Highbury and Sheffield Magistrates. Not only has The Chief Executive of HMCTS , Susan Acland- Hood taken to Twitter to launch her promotional blog https://insidehmcts.blog.gov.uk/2017/07/21/ensuring-our-justice-system-fits-the-needs-of-those-it-serves/?utm_medium=email&utm_source=, but she has partially engaged on the social media platform with a number of the many sceptics amongst us .
Other than a small minority who may see an opportunity out of the potential boycott of the scheme, the profession are universally opposed to the scheme. There are however, a number of questions that Ms Acland-Hood has not considered or been prepared to answer. Instead she seems to rely on Lord Leveson's remark that the Courts are the only public service that has not altered its working patterns to fit in with our modern society. Of course she forgets to mention that primary and secondary schools still operate 9am to 3:30 pm and of course we are all well aware that legal aid rates haven't been subject to any "modern" inflationary linked rises.
This week many of us were emailed by the LAA to advise us that the cells at Westminster were to now open at 9am instead of 930am so as to ensure that court business is concluded by the end of the day. The 9.30 rule existed because Serco struggled to transport and process prisoners to be ready to take instructions prior to that time.
Susan Acland-Hood, having commenced dialogue, albeit over social media might care to answer a number of queries we have:
- Are HMCTS staff being offered flexible working hours or overtime? If the latter, are enhanced legal aid rates being made available from the same budget for defence practitioners? If not, why not?
- If HMCTS staff are offered flexi-time instead of overtime pay, is it expected that defence firms should offer their staff the same terms and conditions?
- If so will the General Criminal Contract be amended and KPIs relaxed to tolerate the greater use of agents to cover for those staff working later /earlier shifts.
- Have HMCTS accounted for the distance that practitioners have to travel to reach court for 8am? Has consideration been given to those who need to make personal child care arrangements and similar?
- Travel is paid on the basis of the journey to and from the office. Will travel costs be allowable to and from home in line with the provision for out of hour’s police station advice?
- Are overnight custody cases to be listed in these courts? How can the court service be assured that cases will be ready to commence at 8am given the current inability to have papers served, prisoners delivered and cases listed in time?
- Is the early morning pilot to be a list of essentially applications (search warrants etc.) and motoring summons?
- Given that it is heralded as a benefit to working defendants, witnesses and victims (sic), will those parties be offered a choice as to the timings?
- If they are not offered a choice, will there be tolerance for non-attendance due to childcare commitments and travel difficulties?
- How does an 8am trial ensure that the aforementioned parties do not miss out on work, commitments given they are unlikely to conclude before 10am? Further, how does a court starting at 5:30pm ensure that the parties can leave work on time and in the right frame of mind to give evidence?
- If the 8pm pilot is to deal with late afternoon overnight hearings, how are the prison service to accommodate those remanded into custody? If remanded in custody by the court, will they be held in police cells overnight? Have you considered the current pressure on the police estate as a result of police station closures? Have Serco budgeted for the additional staff and overtime payments /shift patterns?
- How are those lawyers with childcare commitments to cover evening listings with limited notice? Cases where police charge and refuse bail cannot be planned in advance. At least, when we are on police station duty, will we have several weeks or months’ notice of the slots?
Unless the CEO can deal with these concerns in lieu of the absent prior engagement, we cannot see how any practitioners can possibly consider engaging with a scheme that appears to have been created on the back of a flip board during a management consultants brainstorming exercise on an away day in Berkshire.
Jonathan Black is a Partner at BSB Solicitors Www.bsbsolicitors.co.uk