Controversial plans for night courts have been deferred after widespread criticism that they would hit working mothers and force women to leave the law.
Susan Acland-Hood, chief executive of HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), said that she had listened to concerns and agreed to delay the start of the pilot until February, so that there was a “robust, independent” evaluation system in place.
Lawyers across the profession joined the Bar Council, Law Society and Criminal Bar Association to oppose the plans, which involved “flexible sittings”, starting at 8am at some courts and ending at 8pm at others.
Senior barristers warned that they may even boycott the pilots, which were to start in November, without reassurances as to how they would be evaluated.
Andrew Langdon, QC, chairman of the Bar Council, said last month that he had a duty to “ensure a bad reform is exposed as such”, describing the move as “an attempt to deal with the fact that the Ministry of Justice is underfunded and so are the courts”.
The plans to extend court opening hours were put forward by HMCTS to increase the rate at which cases are dealt with.
Acland-Hood said yesterday: “The strong views expressed reinforce the need for us to proceed on a clear evidence base.
“It’s for that reason that … 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.”
Langdon welcomed the announcement. “Whilst plans for flexible courts have not been dropped, it is encouraging to see HMCTS not only take on board the Bar Council’s concerns about the plans, which include the impact they will have on barristers with child and other care responsibilities, but they also commit to ensuring robust evaluation measures are in place before proceeding with the pilot.
“Past experience shows that rushing into decisions can backfire on the government, employment tribunal fees and the impact of LASPO [Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012] on vulnerable people being just two examples. We will continue to talk with HMCTS, who are in listening mode, on this issue.”
HMCTS will reopen the tender process, consult further with the legal profession in England and Wales, and run additional pilots, Acland-Hood said.
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.”