Magistrates will be able to lock up people for longer under powers being granted by the government to cut the Crown court backlog.
Lord chancellor Dominic Raab announced today that he will double the maximum prison sentence – currently six months - that magistrates can hand down. Magistrates will also increasingly be allowed to sentence serious cases such as fraud, theft and assault. Currently, any crime that warrants a prison sentence of more than six months must be sent to the Crown court for a judge to determine the appropriate sentence.
There are currently 12,651 magistrates in post across England and Wales. Magistrates do not need any specific legal training and do not sit exams. Magistrates undergo mandatory training of about three-and-a-half days before sitting in court and are allocated a mentor in the first year. After sitting for 12 months, they are regularly appraised by specially trained magistrates.
The changes will come into force ‘in the coming months’ via a commencement order and apply to England and Wales. Magistrates will need to complete ‘proper training’ provided by the Judicial College before the new powers are granted. An ‘off switch’ will be included in the Judicial Review and Courts Bill to end the measures if needed.
Raab said: ‘This important measure will provide 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.’
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.
‘Magistrates have been integral in keeping the justice system functioning during the Covid-19 pandemic and, by enabling them to hear more serious offences, this new provision will mean they can contribute to easing the pressure on the Crown Courts.'
However, the Law Society said it did not support increasing magistrates' sentencing powers. I. Stephanie Boyce, president, said the measure will not help address the backlog, which is predominantly in the Crown court.
'The current ability of magistrates to commit cases to the Crown Court when their powers are felt to be inadequate enables cases to be sentenced in the appropriate forum,' she added.
The Ministry of Justice says increasing magistrates' sentencing powers will free up an estimated 2,000 Crown court days annually. Latest figures show the Crown court backlog continuing to slowly come down from the record high of 60,994 in June 2021. There were 58,728 outstanding cases last November. The backlog stood at 41,045 at the start of the first lockdown.
Labour, which has previously advocated for cutting jury sizes to reduce the backlog, described the latest measure as ‘another sticking plaster to deal with a backlog crisis they have created’.
Shadow courts and sentencing minister Alex Cunningham said: ‘Ministers must give assurances that greater powers for magistrates won’t inflict even more burden on Crown courts – with increased numbers of appeals overloading a diminishing number of criminal advocates left in the system. Labour would rapidly extend the use of Nightingale courts to give victims the justice, security and respect they deserve.’
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