Our justice system is one of the greatest in the world but it is vital we try to keep pace with changes in society, ensuring it meets the needs of the people it serves and is fit for the 21st century. We need to make changes to the system while recognising and respecting the incredible contribution of the legal professionals who are its cornerstone.
Operating courts at different times of the day may enable us to improve access to justice as well as ensure we are using the resources we have in the system in the most efficient way we can. As part of our reform programme we have been looking at options to use our court and hearing rooms outside the traditional hours of 10am-4pm.
Last year we published a prospectus on how we might pilot these flexible hours and invited comment on our proposals. We wanted to take the opportunity to listen to legal professionals on whose working lives these changes would potentially make an impact. And we did listen. We heard views from a wide range of people about many facets of the pilots, positive and negative, but in particular there were concerns from legal professionals working in the criminal courts who outlined the specific pressures faced there, and why they thought this would make flexible hours unsuitable at present. I am very grateful to all those who responded and to those from the Bar who have talked to me in person about this matter.
On that basis, we have decided to proceed only with pilots in the civil and family courts. Flexible Operating Hours are not being tested in the criminal courts. Furthermore, the pilot is limited to particular types of hearing that we and others consider are more suitable for late and early sittings.
Testing early morning and evening hearings will enable more people to attend court at different times of the day. We hope this will alleviate some of the stress that is naturally associated with attending court by allowing some people the opportunity to fit attendance around their everyday lives. It will also mean that legal professionals - as well as the judiciary and court staff - will have the option of working in different patterns to those of the traditional court day. For some this may be an opportunity, but we recognise that it may be more difficult for others, and we'll evaluate the impact that it has on everyone involved - public and professional court users like.
A revised prospectus sets out our new plans for two courts in Manchester and Brentford to host the flexible hours pilots from Spring 2019, backed up by a comprehensive evaluation of the impacts, costs and benefits across the justice system, including on professionals' working lives. Only when we can see the results of the evaluation, which the Bar Council will be scrutinising, will any decisions be made about rolling out flexible hours. We will continue to consult with you along the way and I'm very grateful for your continued and constructive engagement.
Justice Minister, Lucy Frazer QC MP.