Magistrates will get power to give one-year jail sentences to cut backlog


Show caption Highbury Corner magistrates court in London. Currently magistrates’ sentencing powers are limited to six months. Photograph: Sabrina Merolla/Zuma Press Wire/Rex/Shutterstock Crime Magistrates will get power to give one-year jail sentences to cut backlog Pandemic has caused huge delays in justice system but barristers claim change in England and Wales is ‘distraction politics’ Jamie Grierson @JamieGrierson Tue 18 Jan 2022 00.01 GMT Share on Facebook

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Magistrates in England and Wales will be given more sentencing powers in an attempt to tackle the backlog of cases waiting to be dealt with by criminal courts.

In the latest effort to reduce both the number of outstanding cases and the pressure faced by crown courts during the coronavirus pandemic, magistrates will be able to hand out jail terms of up to a year – double the current maximum.

The Ministry of Justice estimates this could free up almost 2,000 extra days of crown court time a year.

The move will allow magistrates to sentence more serious cases they hear, such as fraud, theft and assault. At present, crimes warranting a jail term of more than six months have to be sent to a crown court for sentencing.

The move was welcomed by magistrates but barristers said it was “distraction politics at its worst” and would “do nothing to unplug the existing massive backlog of trials”.

Keeping more cases in magistrates courts, which have been “less severely affected” by Covid, means crown courts can better focus their resources on tackling the backlog, the MoJ said.

The changes, which are expected to come into force in the coming months, will only apply to so-called either-way offences, which can be dealt with by magistrates or crown courts. It will mean defendants can still opt to have their case heard by a jury in a crown court if they wish.

An amendment to the judicial review and courts bill will enable the government to reverse the change if needed.

Bev Higgs, the national chair of the Magistrates Association, which has campaigned for sentencing powers to be extended, said the organisation was delighted with the announcement, adding: “It is absolutely the right time to realign where cases are heard to ensure a safe, effective, and efficient justice system and this demonstrates great confidence in the magistracy.

“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.”

But Jo Sidhu QC, the chair of the Criminal Bar Association, which represents practising criminal barristers in England and Wales, said: “Increasing magistrates’ sentencing powers will do nothing to unplug the existing massive backlog of trials stuck in the crown court pipeline.

“This is distraction politics at its worst. The government seems wilfully blind to the stark reality that hundreds of criminal barristers have left the field in despair due to a quarter century of falling real incomes. That is the reason why victims of serious crime are being denied justice in our crown courts.”

He added: “Fiddling with magistrates’ sentencing powers is a betrayal of victims of crime. This is a cynical means of depriving those accused of serious crime from being judged by their peers in our long-established jury system.

“Keeping back more cases in the magistrates will in any event only trigger more appeals to the crown court, adding to the long list of cases and divert criminal advocates from tackling the existing pile-up of trials.”

Mark Fenhalls QC, the chair of the Bar Council, the lead representative body for barristers in England and Wales, said: “We believe that these changes will simply increase the prison population and put further pressure on the Ministry of Justice budget. This will mean less money available to keep the courts running.

“It is also quite possible that the changes may prompt more defendants to elect trial in the crown court, increasing the trial backlog. This would damage the interests of complainants and victims and be counterproductive to everything we are trying to achieve to deliver timely and fair justice.”

Last year, Whitehall’s spending watchdog, the National Audit Office, said the criminal courts backlog would “remain a problem for many years” after the number of outstanding cases in the crown courts reached record highs of almost 61,000 and more than 364,000 in magistrates courts before beginning to slowly reduce.

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