Extended operating hours in the civil courts will continue until the end of the financial year, the government has said, as the court system braces itself for ‘greater pressure’ in the coming months.
In an updated recovery plan for civil and family courts and tribunals, HM Courts & Tribunals service said reopening court buildings and holding remote hearings might not be enough to deal with the civil case backlog.
‘A civil working group, chaired by a designated civil judge, has reviewed options for temporary extensions of operating hours. It found that extended operating hours in the evening or at the weekend might be suitable for small claims and fast track hearings and recommended that designated civil judges should have the option to implement extended Covid operating hours where they deem the local situation requires it,’ HMCTS said. The extension will last until the end of the financial year.
The are currently no plans to introduce extended operating hours in the family courts, but HMCTS said the situation ‘will be kept under review’.
Demand in the civil courts is expected to increase compared with the past six months and HMCTS said court capacity will come under greater pressure. ‘There is already a significant volume of cases waiting to be listed so our focus now is on ensuring we process the current caseload as quickly as possible so we can manage the anticipated increase in demand effectively,’ it said.
Possession claims are due to return to 'at least pre-Covid levels over the autumn' and the government said it has implemented contingency arrangements for increased demand. Employment tribunals were also labelled as a 'key challenge'.
HMCTS said it is recruiting hundreds of additional staff as part of its recovery plan.
In the family courts, July 2020 saw the highest levels of judicial sittings in a single month and the number of cases completed is now returning to pre-Covid levels.
According to HMCTS, disposals in public law cases have averaged over 80% of pre-pandemic levels since March 2020 while private law disposals have averaged 70%. As a result, in public family law the backlog has risen by 16% since the start of the pandemic, while the number of outstanding private cases has grown by 19%.
Law Society president David Greene welcomed the steps taken by HMCTS to reduce case backlogs.
However, he said the growing case backlog in the employment tribunals and potential increase in possession hearing cases remain ‘a huge concern’.
‘Before expanding Covid operating hours, HMCTS must ensure that it is making maximum use of normal court hours and the existing court estate and avoid any restrictions on judges sitting while there are court rooms (real, virtual or Nightingale) available,’ Greene said.