The government is not trying to permanently change the way the courts work by extending operating hours to clear the backlog, the lord chancellor has said.
Robert Buckland and HM Courts & Tribunals Service chief Susan Acland-Hood were questioned about the controversial measure by the House of Lords constitution committee yesterday.
From practitioners’ point of view, Acland-Hood said it should not be the case that their hours are extended. ‘We are not expecting anyone to work extremely long, whole days in court. It’s court buildings hours that we want to extend.’
Under the plan, sitting times might be staggered. HMCTS is looking at morning, afternoon and evening sessions in the magistrates’ court, and it is looking at potential patterns in the Crown court.
Acland-Hood said: ‘I’m acutely conscious this raises challenges for the profession. But it also speaks to [an earlier point] that the professions need to have a flow of work coming through to make sure they can remain solvent.’
More matters are being listed on Saturdays. Acland-Hood said the magistrates’ court traditionally sits on Saturdays to hear overnight remand cases.
She said: ‘The representative bodies are not enormous fans of this plan, but I think there is work we can do with the profession to get into a place where we can make this is a pragmatic, emergency solution.’
Buckland told the committee that any alterations to hours would be Covid-related. ‘This is not some attempt to permanently move the dial or change the way in which the courts work. Having said that, there is clearly a strong case for looking carefully at how work is managed in the Crown court. The idea we want to open the court at 8am and close 12 hours later, expecting court users and professionals to sit there or come in all day couldn’t be further from the truth.
‘Not only is this about effective listing and trial management, but safety too. There is a good case for making sure we create a system where we are not expecting everyone to come at once and we stagger attendance of people through the working day. We’re very alive to the fact that any change can have an effect on the working pattern of those involved.’
He added: ‘While the professionals are absolutely important – and I was one of them for many years – it is not just about them, it is about the users as well, the witnesses and the people who want to access justice too. I, as lord chancellor, have to think of everybody and I would be failing in my duty if I didn’t do that.’