Ministry of Justice plans to introduce more flexible court patterns, following the August 2011 riots, have proved something of a failure, with half of the courts involved abandoning the scheme following the pilot according to an independent evaluation commissioned by the Ministry.
In March 2013 the Ministry of Justice commissioned Natcen Research to assist in the evaluation of the pilots and its extensive research looked at the effects of the pilots on the various agencies, including defence firms.
The pilot flexible scheme at 42 Magistrates Courts across England and Wales trialed extended weekday and Saturday sittings, Sunday sittings and extended video link courts for six months from October 2012. Historically, Saturday courts were purely remand courts dealing with defendants in Police custody and solely dealing with the issue of bail. However, the pilot altered this dynamic and many courts extended their powers on Saturdays to take pleas and deal with sentences where the Magistrates accepted jurisdiction.
At the time, 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 statistics from the report show that approximately 6,000 cases were heard during the pilot. Of these 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 video link technology.
The report shows that Sunday hearings ‘attracted the most resistance’ during the pilot, with some agencies such as Probation and YOT not cooperating entirely on the basis that Sunday courts were not financially or operationally viable and damaged the work-life balance. Sunday working proved to be a failure and no courts have continued with the idea after the pilot ended. 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.
The pilot was met with heavy criticism by defence practitioners as to whether Saturday and Sunday courts provided the best and most cost effective solution to existing problems of inefficiency. Criminal defence solicitors already provide a 24 hour, 7 day a week service covering Police station work and to then be forced to courts on Sundays as well as Saturdays was not a favorable proposition, particularly faced with current legal aid cuts.
The report findings of ‘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 court were unable to access court buildings as security passes did not work out of normal hours. Defence solicitors also found that other agencies working with the pilot were often not able to access information readily available during regular court sittings that all parties would require to deal with defendants properly.
Video Link Technology
The video court pilot tested the concept of linking one court to three different Police custody suites. The report illustrated some success with increased use of video link facilities but highlighted some ‘delivery issues’, including the need for sufficient space for solicitors to consult clients and the need for adequate resources in Police custody to facilitate these consultations.
Following the pilots, 24 courts have retained some of the practices from the pilot, the majority of which increase weekday and Saturday sittings and make greater use of video technology.