The flexible operating hours (FOH) pilots for civil and family courts are to begin on 2 September, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has announced.
It said the aim was to test whether using of courtrooms outside the traditional hours of 10am to 4pm would offer “better access to justice for people before or after their working day and improves the efficient use of buildings”.
The pilots will run for six months and consist of late sittings (4.30pm to 7pm) involving both civil and family work at Manchester Civil Justice Centre and early (8am to 10:30am) and late sittings involving civil work only at the county court at Brentford.
Initially, the MoJ was also going to try flexible hours in the criminal courts but revised its plans last November given the “particular pressures in the criminal jurisdiction”.
A draft timetable for Brentford published by the MoJ at that time envisaged sessions running from 8-10.30am to handle warrant suspensions, civil applications lasting less than 30 minutes, and adjourned possession work.
In that court, the normal day would then begin, with a new judge, running to the adjusted times of 10.45am-1.45pm, and 2.45-4.45pm.
In another courtroom, it would be a normal 10-4 day, and then a new judge would come in to run a 4.30-7pm session.
This would deal with up to two small claims of less than 90 minutes each, telephone case management hearings and civil applications of less than 60 minutes.
The matters heard in the FOH sessions will still also be dealt with during the normal court day.
That will be the same in Manchester. The civil courts will hear small claims, housing possession (subject to changes to the rota for provision of a duty solicitor), Chancery applications, and part 8/stage 3 RTA applications.
The family courts will hold first hearing directions and appointments, financial dispute appointments, infant approval hearings, financial dispute resolution appointments, and occasional urgent work which is sat at short notice.
HMCTS stressed that it has not made any decisions to roll out FOH nationwide, which would only be made “following robust assessment of evidence and data gathered through these pilots and a comprehensive, independent evaluation of the impacts, costs and benefits across the justice system”.
The MoJ last week also touted how the £15m of extra funding it found for court maintenance late last year has been spent on more than 450 improvement projects at over 200 courts. This was in addition to £81m spent on maintenance in 2018/19.
It included roof replacements and repairs – including at Chester Crown Court – lift replacements at Swansea Civil Justice Centre and Thames Magistrates’ Court, and a new entrance at Croydon Combined Court.
Finally, the latest MoJ statistics showed that the number of unspecified money claims brought in the first quarter of 2019 fell 8%to 32,700, driven by a fall in personal injury claims (down 11% to 29,800) when compared to the same quarter in 2018.
It said the drop could be attributed to a change in the Civil Procedure Rules on holiday package gastric illness claims, and whiplash reform.
Meanwhile, it took an average of 36.9 weeks between a small claim being issued and going to trial in the first quarter, 3.9 weeks longer than in the same period in 2018.
Since October to December 2016, where it stood at 30.4 weeks, the small claims mean time taken to reach trial has been increasing quarter on quarter, and is now at the longest mean time taken since the MoJ started reporting on a quarterly basis.
It said: “A sustained period of increasing receipts has increased the time taken to hear civil cases and caused delays to progress cases.
“Additional investment has reduced administrative backlogs and the recent appointment of a large pool of deputy district judges that will begin hearing cases this year, as well as district judge recruitment that is underway, will increase judicial capacity and improve the performance of the courts.”
For multi/fast track claims, it took on average 58.5 weeks to reach a trial, nearly two weeks longer than in January to March 2018 – this is near the upper limit of the long-term range of 52-59 weeks.
Annual figures for the higher courts showed a 6% rise in proceedings within the London Chancery Division in 2018, to 3,995. The largest year-on-year increase seen was in the land and property category (up 15% to 349 proceedings) whilst there was a decrease of 40% in the business and industry category to 83 proceedings.
The Queen’s Bench saw a more modest 3% rise in new proceedings to 4,439 in 2018.