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Open all hours? Manchester Civil Justice Centre to trial extended opening times20th November 2018 Family Law
The Ministry of Justice has announced that it will be piloting extended opening hours in two court centres, Brentford County Court and our very own Manchester Civil Justice Centre. If everything goes according to plan, the pilots should start in Spring 2019 and run for approximately 12 weeks. Certain types of case, including some family hearings will be included in the pilot. The government says that it is testing the proposal and it should not be assumed that this will be the shape of things to come. Their logic is that, outside core court sitting hours of 10am-4pm, court buildings are under-utilised and more could be being done with them to enable cases to reach a conclusion more efficiently.
There is also an argument that having court sittings at, for example 8am-10am and 4pm-6pm would be beneficial for those who struggle to get time off work to attend court. Trying to accommodate them, the theory goes, will improve access to justice. This is a laudable aim. Who would stand in the way of improved access to justice? However, there are very real concerns about whether extended sitting hours will in fact improve access to justice without considerable and adverse unintended consequences.
Responses to an earlier consultation on the topic have expressed concern about the effect of extended sitting hours on those with childcare responsibilities. If court hearings are scheduled for 8am (surely at short notice as is so often the case anyway), once you have factored in time for the solicitor and/or barrister to meet up with the client, discuss the hearing in prospect and take last minute instructions, that is a very early start indeed. Very few childcare providers will be able to facilitate this, particularly at short notice.
There have also been concerns expressed by and on behalf of junior barristers in particular who are already working long hours and preparing the next day’s cases into the night. If they are routinely in court until 6pm and facing an 8am start the next morning, where does this leave their preparation time? Not to mention sleeping and eating. It’s not that lawyers want to start late and finish early; it is that the time outside standard court sitting hours is already full!
All we can hope is that the government pays extremely careful attention to the pilots and listens to all those involved in the justice system when considering whether to roll this out further. There are plenty of areas for improvement within the way courts work, which come down principally to resourcing: improved predictability of scheduling, the reduction/elimination of hearings cancelled at short notice, or slow processing of paperwork, which already make the system difficult and frustrating to use at times.