Plans to double magistrates’ sentencing powers to one year were described by defence lawyers as ‘a sticking plaster’ applied to a broken justice system. Dominic Raab, Justice Secretary, announced yesterday that magistrates sentencing powers were to increase from their current maximum of six months to target the increasing backlog of trials for the crown courts by enabling magistrates to try more serious offences such as assault, fraud and burglary.
Magistrates’ courts, presided over by volunteers with no legal training, are run in conditions of chaos. They are by any measure a lesser form of justice.
Rather than fund the system properly, the government wants more cases heard in these conditions. https://t.co/MrXbyaYSfE
— The Secret Barrister (@BarristerSecret) January 18, 2022
Dominic Raab told the Telegraph that the changes would increase the amount of cases heard by the magistrates, therefore freeing up crown court judges to deal with major trials. The changes, expected to come in by March 2022, will only apply to either-way offences, meaning defendants will still be able to elect to have a jury trial where previously possible.
The backlog for cases in the crown courts has been reported to have reached 60,000. This figure has doubled since the start of the pandemic, despite the government investing £125 million to tackle delays. By contrast, the magistrates have managed to reduce their backlog from just under half a million at the peak of the pandemic to 350,000 according to recent Ministry of Justice figures. Raab claimed the measure ‘forms part of our wider strategy to get court backlogs down as quickly as possible, increase the prosecution rate of offenders and give victims swifter justice’.
Chairman of the Magistrates Association, Bev Higgs, has welcomed the change, stating ‘it is absolutely the right time to realign where cases are heard to ensure a safe, effective and efficient justice system, and this demonstrates greater confidence in the magistracy’.
However, Jo Sidhu QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association has suggested that the changes will simply lead to more cases being appealed in the Crown Courts as lawyers challenge magistrates legal judgement and will ‘divert criminal advocates from tackling the existing pile up of trials’. ‘The difficulty that the government has to address is how can you guarantee there will be a reduction in the backlog just by bringing in this measure,’ Sidhu told BBC News. ‘The reality is if defendants know that magistrates have enhanced sentencing powers of 12 months they will elect to go to the crown court and so there will be a bulge as more defendants coming through rather than fewer. The bottom line is that it is a sticking plaster and it is not the way to deal with a fundamental problem – a crisis that we have seen over the last couple of years that has become more acute.’
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