A long-awaited pilot of flexible court hours began last week –and two law centres made clear their feelings on the controversial initiative.
Extended sitting hours are being tested at London’s Brentford County Court and Manchester Civil Justice Centre. Brentford is testing 8am-10.30am and 4.30pm-7pm sittings in civil work. Manchester is testing 4.30pm-7pm sittings involving civil and family work.
HM Courts & Tribunals Service wants to see if operating courts and tribunals at different times of the day offers more open and accessible justice.
Hammersmith and Fulham, and Ealing law centres, which run the housing court possession duty scheme at Brentford, said: ‘Our clients are mostly on low incomes, and travelling across London at peak times will be impossible. Missed hearings will lead to defences that the court never considers, and prevents meeting a duty solicitor, which is often how many clients access the service of a law centre, allowing welfare benefits caseworkers and referral partners to work holistically with the client to solve underlying issues.
‘The problems within a large city would be exacerbated elsewhere. For example, in rural areas for those who live up to 40 miles from the nearest court without a regular bus, attending an 8am hearing would prove impossible.’
An independent evaluator has been appointed to assess the pilots and will report back next year.