In case there was any doubt, extended court hours are happening. Doubt because the lord chancellor said ‘we are looking at whether courts will need to stay open for longer’ while, at the same time, publishing a coronavirus recovery plan that stated extended operating hours would begin this month.
Anyway, late yesterday afternoon HMCTS chief executive Susan Acland-Hood posted a blog pretty much confirming their arrival. To bring the staggeringly high Crown court backlog down to pre-coronavirus levels, all the available levers need to be pulled – reduced social distancing, Blackstone courts and extended hours.
To a lay person, extending hours sounds like a sensible idea to deal with a backlog made worse by the virus. But the danger is we are now heading down a slippery path where a case listed at 7pm on a Friday or 3pm on a Saturday becomes the norm. What point has to be reached for officials to decide extended hours should stop?
HMCTS’s statement in response to a Saturday afternoon court listing was alarming. ‘Magistrates’ courts have always sat on Saturdays. Parties can apply to have the case moved to a weekday if attendance is difficult.’
It should be the other way around – parties should be able to apply to have a case moved to a Saturday if attendance on a weekday is difficult. Saturday should not be considered a normal working day. Also, what counts as a good reason to move the case to a weekday?
If we let evening and weekend courts become the norm, we set off a ticking timebomb under the wellbeing of lawyers. The wellbeing of young child-free lawyers who don’t feel they have a good enough excuse not to attend court on a Saturday, the wellbeing of lawyers buckling under financial strain and need every penny they can earn, and the wellbeing of parents who will have to drop one of their spinning plates and watch it smash into pieces.