Courts backlog: Magistrates' given more sentencing powers
The new powers are aimed at easing pressure on the crown courts
The government has announced magistrates will have their sentencing powers increased in England and Wales to relieve pressure on the crown courts and tackle the judicial backlog. According to the government, the changes will come into force “in the coming months”.
Deputy Prime Minister, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Dominic Raab, confirmed magistrates would now have the power to hand down prison sentences of up to 12 months – double the current maximum six-month sentence. The government estimates this will free up an estimated 2,000 extra days of crown court time annually.
Proper training will need to be completed by magistrates before the change can come into effect, the government confirmed.
The move will increasingly allow serious cases – such as fraud, theft and assault – to be sentenced by magistrates. Currently, any crimes warranting a jail term of more than six months must be sent to crown court.
Magistrates’ courts have been less severely impacted by the pandemic and have the capacity to hear more cases. The hope is this will enable crown courts to focus their resources on tackling the pandemic backlog.
The Justice Secretary commented: “This important measure will provide vital additional capacity to drive down the backlog of cases in the Crown Courts over the coming years.
“Together with the Nightingale Courts, digital hearings and unlimited sitting days, we will deliver swifter and more effective justice as we build back a stronger, safer and fairer society after the pandemic”.
As well as the nationwide Nightingale courtrooms, the government has committed to extend 32 crown court rooms that deal with criminal trials until the end of March 2022. It has also created two state-of-the-art ‘super courtrooms’ which can accommodate up to 12 defendants, increasing capacity for large trials. 3,265 cloud video virtual court rooms have been utilised across all jurisdictions, which currently hold around 13,600 hearings per week using audio and/or video hearings.
Bev Higgs, national chair of the Magistrates’ Association said: “We have been campaigning for years for magistrates’ sentencing powers to be extended to 12 months for single offences, so we are delighted with the Lord Chancellor’s announcement today.
“It is absolutely the right time to re-align where cases are heard to ensure a safe, effective, and efficient justice system and this demonstrates great confidence in the magistracy”.
Higgs said magistrates have been “integral” in keeping the justice system functioning during the pandemic and that by enabling them to hear more serious offences, they will be able to contribute to easing the pressure on the crown courts.
She added: “I know our members and colleagues will take up this new level of responsibility with pride, professionalism, and integrity and will – as always – strive to deliver the highest quality of justice in their courts”.
However, some members of the profession have raised concerns that the measures do not go far enough. Daniel Martin, partner at JMW Solicitors, said: “The current proposals are radical and may cut the numbers of cases proceeding to the Crown Court initially. However, defendants in the lower court have a right to a de novo appeal in the Crown Court, meaning that it is automatic and that the legal test whereby appellants must obtain permission from a single judge in the appeal courts does not apply. Therefore, serious thought will need to go into streamlining the appeals process in the Crown Courts otherwise the effect of the new measures will be offset by an increase in appeals, as many others have predicted".
He added: “The government have tried to suggest that this appalling state of affairs is to do with Covid-19, but it is in fact the direct result of decades of underfunding the Criminal Justice System. HMCTS, criminal legal aid, the CPS, the Probation Service and the Police all require targeted investment to bring our criminal justice system back to where it should be and once was, a world leading system based on fairness to both victims and defendants.
“The most radical step the government could actually take would be to properly fund the whole system, which would massively benefit society as whole. However, the criminal justice system has a reputation for not being a ‘vote winner’, except when governments arbitrarily increase sentences for certain offences following a headline grabbing case.”