It has long been acknowledged that humans only concentrate for short periods of time: we get bored, our minds wander, concentrating for long periods of time is tiring. The court day is designed with this in mind, days are shorter than may be expected, regular breaks are taken particularly in the Crown Court where the most serious cases are heard.
In the aftermath of the London riots in 2011 courts sat for longer periods, large volumes of cases needed to be heard. Lawyers, court staff and the judiciary did everything possible to ensure cases were heard in a timely manner. These were exceptional circumstances.
Currently courts generally sit from 10 until 4.30. Some sit slightly earlier, some slightly later. These regular hours enable people to travel to Courts, take their children to school and collect them at a reasonable time (adjustments are often needed particularly for jurors who are full-time carers).
Proposals released by the Ministry of Justice now propose that Courts should start earlier and finish later. The Crown Court would close at 6pm, and Magistrates' courts at 8.30pm. The civil courts would close at 7pm. The Court Service has indicated that they want to make the system more flexible for working people. This is an oversimplification.
These extended hours bring different problems depending on your role in the justice system. Will a defendant or witness really want to sit around all day hoping for their case to be heard or want to go to work and then start giving evidence at 5pm? At the end of a long day attending Court is likely to be the last thing that a person wants to do; particularly if they are unsure about giving evidence. Will they even be able to get to Court? Will members of the jury be able to stay that late? In many areas by this time public transport is much rarer and childcare non-existent. The Court Service doesn't provide crèche facilities.
Our system is one of the best in the world but it is creaking: legal aid rates haven't risen in decades and face constant cuts. Lawyers and the Judiciary face personal criticism for their involvement in unpopular cases or decisions. The Court system has not kept up with technological advances - systems used by the police, CPS, Courts and the defence still do not properly talk to each other. The Court estate is ageing - canteen facilities are rare and newer courts are often situated slightly further out of towns where prices are cheaper. They are small things but they all affect the Court experience for all users.
Lawyers who finish court at 4.30pm don't finish for the day. They often spend their evenings preparing their cases for the next day. Cases which are part heard may require legal arguments to be prepared for the next morning, witness examination needs finalising and material has to be reviewed. For new cases, papers are collected and cases prepared ready to be started the following day. The system works on that goodwill. Under these new proposals there will be no scope for that goodwill, nor any inclination to make the further sacrifices required.
There is much concern that women with children rarely return to or leave the profession soon after having children. Similarly, the number of women in the Judiciary is not reflective of the number of women in the profession. Proposals such as this will do little to improve this. It will not make a career in criminal justice appealing to anybody with primary care responsibilities. Concerns have been raised about these proposals, and particularly their potentially discriminatory effect on women. It has been stated that the pilot will be vigorously reviewed. Let us hope that is the case and that the Ministry of Justice do not simply plough on regardless of feedback received.
The criminal justice system undoubtedly needs to develop to keep up with modern times and limited resources. Whether efficiency is created by simply extending court hours is doubtful. More consideration must be given to the consequences of such a step – particularly as to its impact on women in both the profession and the criminal justice system as a whole.