Flexible Operating Hours: The future of the courts or a recipe for disaster?

Last month saw the start of the flexible operating hours (“FOH”) at Manchester Civil Justice Centre and the County Court at Brentford. This is a six month pilot scheme which involves early sittings from 8am to late sittings at 7pm in both civil and family cases. The aim is to test whether this would lead to better access to justice for people as well as an improved efficiency in the Court buildings.

But whilst this pilot may allow people to attend Court outside of their working day, and may reduce the delays in cases being heard, what about the people whose ‘working day’ revolves around the Court building?

It is well known, and widely accepted, that barristers and solicitors’ days rarely start at 9am and finish at 5pm. However, the possibility of FOH being rolled out to all Courts leads to a risk of legal professionals needing to be at Court as early as 8am or as late as 7pm. It is extremely unlikely that any barrister or solicitor will frequent their most local court on a daily basis and so travelling time has to be factored in to any working day. Consider a situation where Counsel is in court until 7pm on one end of the Western Circuit and is expected in court at 8am at the other end the next day. Work does not start and end the minute the case in court concludes either. The additional work of attendance notes, orders and preparation time is also a valuable part of the job. This is not just expected of Counsel; solicitors also need to be on hand for instructions, as well as any following up that needs to be done after any hearing. FOH therefore risks lawyers working all hours of the day, without the time for any sufficient break. At a time when the President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, is telling us not to do more than a full day’s work, the concepts of FOH and Wellbeing at the Bar simply cannot be reconciled.

Further, FOH risks the legal profession taking a step backwards in terms of equality as family life would clearly be affected. Many schools or childcare institutions would not be available either that early in the morning or late into the evening, meaning many would have to take a step back from the profession to look after their children. Again, the Bar has developed so that professionals can now have a working and family life and FOH only places this into jeopardy.

Finally, it is not just legal professionals who will experience this change. A thought has to be spared for the court staff as well as Cafcass officers, social workers and other professionals who have to attend hearings. Our current system and processes would simply collapse without them and it is important to consider that they would face similar problems and potentially without any increase in salary.

Therefore, whilst FOH may cut down delays in cases coming to Court and could benefit lay clients who currently have to take time out of their working day to attend Court, the professionals who dedicate their working life to the court system also have to be considered. In theory, FOH may seem desirable and workable but in reality, this initiative is littered with problems and completely undermines the hard work of those who are pushing for wellbeing at the Bar and the progression to a positive work/life balance of the legal profession.