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When is a pilot not a pilot?

Penelope Gibbs
28 Nov 2013

Post riots, the Ministry of Justice announced that they were going to pilot more flexible courts, both using video technology and running courts for longer hours.  During the riots, magistrates’ and Crown courts worked into the evening in order to process cases more quickly. Some suggested this was at the cost of due process, but the MoJ was very positive about the experience – hence the pilots.

The Ministry of Justice have just brought out a process evaluation of the flexible courts pilot programme.  It is an amazing read because the pilots seemed to be unsuccessful in such a fundamental way.  Longer hours were not needed in most courts, because there was only enough work to fill the normal hours.  Most courts usually start at 10 and finish between 4.00pm and 5.00pm.  In some courts the pilots involved starting at 8.30 but most started only half an hour earlier than usual at 9.30.  The late finishing courts seemed to end at 5.00-5.30pm.  Some extra Saturday courts were put on and there was also an experiment with Sunday courts.  But its not clear what local need these extended hours fulfilled?  Court work nationally was going down.  The riots were a busy blip. So most of the pilot areas struggled to fill the extra hours.  To quote the report “It appeared that, in practice, extended courts made little difference to the operating hours in the courts where they were piloted. Earlier courts had the most impact, but their success relied on all parties attending court at the correct time, and appropriate cases being allocated to the earlier sitting”.  

Some partners refused to take part in the pilots because there was no advantage to doing so – local solicitors got no extra money for turning up on Sunday so wouldn’t.  Many witnesses and defendants preferred to turn up on a weekday than at a weekend, partly because transport was worse at the weekend and they had to travel further.  There were some upsides.  The police had fewer people in custody over the weekend since cases were resolved on Saturday/Sunday and some people’s bail hearings and cases were heard more quickly.  But overall, I think it shows that the courts should be relocalised. If budgets and responsibility were with local managers (and magistrates), they could decide whether they needed an extra Saturday court or needed to start half an hour earlier.  As it is, the courts were asked to implement a pilot by the centre and they did as instructed.  But, if asked, they might have suggested there wasn’t a burning local need.