The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) will scale back magistrates’ powers to jail offenders. As reported in The Telegraph, the new policy will limit magistrates’ sentencing powers to six months in prison. The decision reverses the Covid era policy which allowed them to issue sentences of up to a year for a single offence. The aim of the new policy is to deliver swift justice and ease burdens on prisons.
The MoJ’s decision effectively breaks with previous policy. Last May, Lord chancellor Dominic Raab announced the government’s decision to extend magistrates’ sentencing powers – a decision which proved to be extremely controversial. Magistrates were also increasingly allowed to issue sentences in serious cases, including those involving assault, drug dealing, affray, fraud and theft. The MoJ has insisted that the new policy would not affect sentences for more serious offences.
The new policy has received mix responses. Kirsty Brimelow KC, Chair of the Criminal Bar Association, welcomed the new decision. She said: “Giving of additional sentencing powers to magistrates always would increase the risk of additional people being imprisoned for short sentences.”
However, The Magistrates Association expressed disappointment, claiming that the new statutory instruments would ‘slow down justice.’ They intend to campaign against the reversal and are seeking a statutory review of the new policy decision.
In response to these concerns, one MoJ spokesman said that the older policy allowed the MoJ to “bring down the backlog following the pandemic and ensure victims get the justice they deserve.” But he also insisted that the MoJ has “always retained the flexibility for this to be changed as needed.”
The MoJ is currently taking several steps to address the 61,316 cases in the Crown court. It is enlisting an additional 1,000 judges in the 2022/23 year, removing the restriction on sitting days, and continuing to use 24 Nightingale courtrooms into the 2023/24 year. The real effect of these measures remains to be seen.