Ministry of Justice plans to introduce more flexible court sittings in the wake of the August 2011 riots have proved something of a damp squib, an independent evaluation suggests.

Ministry of Justice plans to introduce more flexible court sittings in the wake of the August 2011 riots have proved something of a damp squib, with half being abandoned, according to an independent evaluation commissioned by the ministry. 

The pilot flexible scheme at 42 magistrates’ courts trialled extended weekday and Saturday sittings; Sunday sittings and extended video courts for six months from October 2012.

Around 6,000 cases were heard during the pilot. More than 2,000 were dealt with in a weekend court, over 3,300 cases were completed by extending court hours on weekdays and nearly 400 cases were dealt with extending the use of prison-to-court video links.

Sunday working was the biggest flop, with no courts continuing with the idea after the pilot ended.

The report says that Sunday hearings ‘attracted the most resistance’ during the pilots, with some partner agencies withdrawing entirely on the basis that Sunday courts were not financially or operationally viable and damaged the work-life balance.

Limited access to support staff and information systems meant there were more adjournments on Sundays, while prisoners and paperwork arrived late, causing delays.

Sunday sittings were felt to ‘exacerbate weekday scheduling issues rather than create efficiencies’, the report finds. While some defendants benefited from an earlier hearing, reduced transport and accommodation options were a concern for vulnerable defendants released on bail.

Questions were raised by some practitioners about whether Saturday and Sunday courts provided the best, most cost-effective solution to existing problems of inefficiency.

The report finds ‘insufficient caseloads’ meant that courts finished no later than they had prior to the pilots. Inadequate staffing levels and lack of access to information to deal with cases proved a problem at weekends, and solicitors at one centre were unable to access court buildings as passes did not work out of normal hours.

Court staff reported they experienced fatigue due to longer days, although some defendants benefited by spending less time in police custody and did not have to take time off work to attend court.

The video court pilot tested the concept of linking one court to three different police custody suites. The report says the pilots showed that it could work in practice, but highlighted some ‘delivery issues’, including the need for sufficient space for solicitors and others to consult clients and the need for adequate resources in police custody to facilitate these consultations.

Following the pilots, 24 flexible court practices have been retained, the majority of which increase weekday and Saturday sittings and make greater use of video technology.

Justice minister Damian Green said: ‘Local communities will benefit from a flexible court service, which will help provide swift and efficient justice putting the needs of victims and witnesses at the forefront.’

The full report is available here