Magistrates have had their sentencing powers doubled in a bid to tackle the backlog of courts, but the move has been criticized as “counterproductive” by lawyers.
Lower courts will now be able to hand down prison sentences of up to a year for a single offense – twice as long as the previous maximum – the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has announced.
The plans were first announced in January as part of efforts to tackle the backlog of criminal cases waiting to be heard, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Deputy Prime Minister, Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary Dominic Raab said: ‘We are doing everything in our power to reduce the backlog of cases, and doubling the sentencing powers of magistrates will create more capacity within the Crown Court to hear the most serious cases. ”
Bev Higgs, National President of the Judges Association, said: ‘We are pleased that the government has placed its faith in the judiciary and introduced this power, along with other measures, to reduce court delays.’
The Ministry of Justice said magistrates and legal advisers had received training ahead of the change to ensure they knew how best to use the new powers.
The new powers will apply to the magistrates’ courts in England and Wales and come into force on Monday.
The change aims to free up more time for Crown courts to deal with more complex and serious cases and deliver faster justice to victims, the Department of Justice said.
He estimates the action could result in nearly 2,000 extra days for Crown courts a year.
But the move was heavily criticized by the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), which represents practicing lawyers in England and Wales.
Jo Sidhu QC, chairman of the organisation, said: “Holding more cases before magistrates can in any event only trigger more appeals to the Crown Court, adding to the growing lists of backlogs and distracting criminal lawyers from tackling pre-existing issues. accumulation of trials.
The ABC said one of the biggest issues contributing to the backlog is the number of ongoing trials in Crown courts, which are unaffected by any changes to magistrates’ sentencing powers.
Many defendants who are charged with offenses that can be tried in Crown Court or Magistrate Courts will also choose to have a jury trial, which means that the sentence will generally not be dealt with by magistrates if they are found guilty, an ABC spokesperson added.
“We say this is counterproductive as many defendants opt for a trial in Crown court for two-way offences,” the spokesperson said.
The total number of cases pending in magistrates and crown courts stood at 432,899 in February, according to the ABC’s analysis of the latest official data.
Mr Sidhu added: “The government may (also) have promised unlimited sitting days, but there are simply not enough judges to sit because, as the Ministry of Justice is well aware, it cannot recruit enough judges who are overwhelmingly drawn from the same dwindling pool of criminal lawyers who are equally prosecuting and defending and leaving in droves.