The controversial extended court hours pilot has been deferred until February, the HMCTS chief has announced.

Susan Acland-Hood said she had listened to the concerns of court users and agreed to delay the start of the pilot until there is a ‘robust, independent’ evaluation system in place.

Many lawyers had opposed the plans to have 8am sittings at selected courts and for some hearings to go until 8pm.

‘The strong views expressed reinforce the need for us to proceed on a clear evidence base,’ she said.

‘It’s for that reason that, today, we have agreed to delay the start of these pilots until we are satisfied that we have a robust, independent evaluation system in place; and until we have taken more time to engage and discuss the pilots, picking up on comments made on how they could be improved.’

Acland-Hood revealed the tender process run over the summer to find an independent organisation to undertake the pilot had not ‘delivered a satisfactory outcome’.

This, combined with the negative feedback from many court users who might be affected, had prompted the postponement.

But the proposal itself is not scrapped altogether: HMCTS will reopen the tender process and consult further with legal professionals across England and Wales – not just those in the pilot areas.

Acland-Hood pledged to set out more clearly the detailed plans for each existing pilot, explaining what they will test and what kind of work will be examined.

Additional pilots will also be created, for example, testing Crown court work in the morning and tribunal work in the same courtroom during the afternoon.

She added: ‘Many of the concerns raised about flexible operating hours point to issues in the way cases are currently scheduled and listed. Unpredictability features in the system now, and makes it difficult for many to contemplate anything that increases the window in which cases might take place.

‘Of course, listing is a judicial function and judges must always have the final say. They must balance many things in making their decisions, and there will always be a case for ‘warned lists’ while so many trials do not go ahead as planned. But, as part of our reform programme, we know we need to improve the way we do the work that underpins and informs those judicial decisions.’

A Gazette investigation found utilisation rates of around 50% at several courts earmarked for extended hours, with critics asking why more was not being done to fill existing opening times.

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