PLANS to extend the hours magistrates’ courts can sit have been put back after being branded a farce by a Rotherham solicitor.
HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) had proposed extending the hours of some courts at Sheffield Magistrates’ Court to 8am to 8pm from mid-November.
When the move was suggested in April, Hester Russell, head of criminal law at Harthills Solicitors, labelled it “the latest farce” after the “mayhem” of the closure of Rotherham Magistrates’ Court and its merger with Sheffield.
HMCTS has now said the plans are on hold until next February, with chief executive Susan Acland-Hood, putting this down to getting “the evaluation and other changes right”.
Ms Acland-Hood said: “Piloting new flexible operating hours in courts, to test whether we can use our buildings more effectively, is a small part of our overall reform programme to build a justice system that is fair, straightforward and accessible to all.
“But the issue has been controversial with many in the legal profession, and I understand why.
“The strong views expressed reinforce the need for us to proceed on a clear evidence base.
“It’s for that reason that we have agreed to delay the start of these pilots until we are satisfied that we have a robust, independent evaluation system in place — and until we have taken more time to engage and discuss the pilots, picking up on comments made on how they could be improved.”
Since the closure of Rotherham Magistrates’ Court last September, all criminal, civil and family cases are now heard in Sheffield.
Sheffield Magistrates’ was one of six earmarked for the pilot.
She added: “We had planned to start the pilots across the Crown, Magistrates, Civil and Family jurisdictions over the next six weeks.
“However, the tender process we ran over the summer to find an independent organisation to undertake this evaluation has not, in our view, delivered a satisfactory outcome.
“We’ve also heard from many people — including those outside the pilot areas — who wanted us to spend more time discussing and refining the plans.”
Ms Acland-Hood promised to spend more time consulting with legal professionals.
Zoe Gascoyne, Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association, added she was “very pleased to see the first signs that the very valid concerns of the profession have been listened to” by the chief executive.