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HMCTS to introduce evening sessions in magistrates’ court

By Monidipa Fouzder  >>

HM Courts & Tribunals Service has revealed that it will introduce evening courts to bring down the backlog of cases in the magistrates’ court.

In a webinar discussing HMCTS’s crime recovery plan yesterday, deputy director Jason Latham said HMCTS was in the ‘final stages’ of identifying how to roll out evening sessions, which would run from 5pm-8pm, Monday to Friday.

Latham said the evening sessions would hear cases requiring minimal involvement from a legal representative.

Saturday courts will also be extended. Earlier this week the Ministry of Justice said magistrates’ courts were seeing the number of outstanding cases fall – dealing with around 21,000 cases a week against a pre-Covid baseline of 33,853. Latham said 90 additional sessions were currently running in the magistrates’ court every Saturday.

To bring down the backlog of Crown court cases, Covid-19 operating hours are being tested at Liverpool, Hull, Stafford, Snaresbrook, Portsmouth and Reading crown courts.

Asked about the potential discriminatory impact of Covid-19 operating hours, Latham said: ‘We recognise this could have different types of impact on different types of users, particularly legal professionals. But it has been designed in a way, by the working group, so that provisions are in place for legal professionals in advance of a listed hearing date to request that it be moved, whether it is because of practical issues or issues such as where they have caring responsibilities.’

Latham added that the Covid-19 operating hours had been ‘designed in a way so people do not have to work longer hours. There is a choice of different sitting patterns available to them’.

Around 360 people tuned into HMCTS’s webinar where officials were also asked about empty courtrooms.

Delivery director Gill Hague said courtrooms might look empty but they were empty for a reason. She said they might be required for jury retiring or jury assembly arrangements, or they might not be being used because social distancing requirements cannot be achieved.

On why HMCTS was regularly sitting benches of two magistrates, not the usual three, attendees were told this was due to being able to maintain social distancing requirements not just in court but also ‘everything back of house’, such as the deliberation room and shared facilities.

Law Society president Simon Davis told the Gazette: ‘We have significant reservations as to whether extended hours will in practice prove to be an effective way to increase court capacity.

‘In the Crown court, we believe the costs are likely to outweigh the benefits, and we are concerned about the impact on lawyers, parties and witnesses with caring responsibilities. However, we do see merit in extending magistrates’ court hours to deal with minor offences involving unrepresented defendants, if those defendants would prefer to be able to deal with these issues outside normal working hours.’

(Courtesy: The Law Society Gazette)