Several courts earmarked for the controversial flexible hours pilot are running at barely half their present capacity, official figures reveal. A freedom of information request by the Gazette has uncovered that courts in Sheffield, Manchester and Brentford are all used at or around 50% of the time under the current opening hours.
Each is due to have sessions starting as early as 8am, with courts open until 6pm at Sheffield and potentially 7pm at Manchester and Brentford.
The figures raise fresh questions about the flexible hours trial, which the Gazette understands is likely to start in November. The government has said court utilisation statistics are not a 'key consideration' for the pilots and the aim is to increase flexibility for all court users.
The figures set out sitting hours workload data during the financial year 2016/17, with capacity based on an assumption of 248 sitting days per year and five hours per day for each courtroom. These are the figures used to support the closure of 86 courts announced last year.
Of the courts involved in the flexible hours pilot, only Blackfriars Crown Court (110%) is running at or above capacity. Highbury Corner Magistrates' Court is running at 92% capacity, while Newcastle Upon Tyne Combined Court is used 79% of the time.
Utilisation rates were 53% at Sheffield Magistrates' Court, 50% at Manchester Civil Justice Centre and 46% at Brentford County Court.
HM Courts and Tribunals Services insists it has worked with the judiciary and partner organisations across the justice system to develop the pilot. The proposals are part of a £1bn investment in the courts system which includes making better use of under-utilised buildings and facilities, and the results will be fully evaluated before any decision to roll out the scheme.
A spokesperson added: 'We are piloting flexible operating hours precisely in order to maximise the use of all our courts, including those currently under-used. Flexible sitting hours can help deliver swifter and more effective access to justice, and give solicitors and barristers greater flexibility to balance their professional commitments with family responsibilities.'
Law Society president Joe Egan said: ‘While we support the government's efforts to improve the workings and efficiency of the court system, it seems extraordinary that HMCTS is planning to extend court opening hours - heaping more pressure on fragile legal aid services - when Ministry of Justice data shows that some courts are barely used for the last year.
‘The North West has been hit hardest, with 13 courts closed since March 2016. The introduction of antisocial work hours will only exacerbate matters. This proposal does not take into account the practical reality or the administrative and consultation work that goes on ahead of a hearing, which means that a court user may need to arrive at court up to an hour before their case is heard.'
Lucy Hogarth, a criminal defence solicitor at Sheffield firm Howells, said HMCTS should make better use of existing facilities and invest in sufficient staff to run more courts. 'This would surely be a more effective investment than the flexible operating hours pilot, with its inevitable impact on the working conditions of all the professional court users and staff, and the potential to prevent groups such as parents and carers from performing their roles as they do now,' she said. 'If operating hours are extended using the same number of court rooms, our concern is that everyone will simply have to attend earlier, stay later, and wait for longer in between.'
Lord Justice Fulford, the senior judge in charge of modernising the courts, has complained about ‘ill-informed comments’ from lawyers and ‘misunderstandings’ about the plans.
But Egan added: 'In the greater Manchester area, there are reports that court users relying on public transport already struggle to reach court in time for a 10.00 am start, and would find an earlier start impossible. We cannot understand why they wish to extend the opening hours when they can’t even fill the existing hours.’
The details of the pilot are:
In Newcastle and Blackfriars Crown Courts, running one session from 9.30am to 1.30pm, then another session (for different cases) from 2pm to 6pm
In Blackfriars, trying a version of this where the morning is used for Crown Court cases, and the afternoon for magistrates’ court cases
In another courtroom in Blackfriars, testing magistrates’ court sitting from 9am and Crown Court cases sitting until 5.30pm
In Sheffield and Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Courts, holding three sessions each day. In Sheffield sessions will start at 8am and finish at 6pm, while in Highbury Corner they will start at 10am and finish at 8pm
In Manchester and Brentford, in the civil and family court, adding either an early or a late slot, the early session running from 8am to 10.45am and the later one from 4.30pm to 7pm.