Magistrates see sentencing powers increased in bid to cut backlog

Bernice Warren appeared at Ipswich magistrates charged with having sex with a dog

Magistrates have had their sentencing powers doubled - Credit: ARCHANT

The sentencing powers of magistrates has been doubled in a bid to tackle the backlog in the courts but the move has been criticised by lawyers. 

From Monday, the lower courts will now be able to hand out jail terms of up to a year for a single offence - twice as long as the previous maximum. 

The plans were first announced by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) in January as part of efforts to address the rising numbers of criminal cases waiting to be heard, which was exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. 

The MoJ said magistrates and legal advisers have been provided with training ahead of the change to ensure they know how best to use the new powers.

The change is aimed at freeing up more time for the crown courts to deal with more complex and serious cases and delivering swifter justice for victims, the MoJ said.

It estimates the action could result in almost 2,000 extra days for crown courts per year.

Barrister Faye Rolfe, from Red Lion Chambers

Barrister Faye Rolfe, from Red Lion Chambers - Credit: Red Lion Chambers

However, barrister Faye Rolfe, from Red Lion Chambers, who regularly works on the south east circuit, which includes Suffolk and Essex, said the move would be counter-productive. 

"Defendants are either going to decide by their own volition or be advised that they should be electing crown court trial now where previously it would have been attractive to stay in the magistrates' court because of that six-month cap on each offence," she said. 

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"So you'll get more trials added to the backlog in the crown court and more appeals. When you appeal from the mags, it goes straight to the crown and that's another half day or day taken out of a judge's list to deal with deciding whether that sentence was fair. 

"The real impact is probably going to be perverse to what they wanted."

Ms Rolfe added that the criminal justice system needs a "sensible cash injection" to deal with its current issues.  

"The backlog is not a product of the pandemic, it was growing and growing over ten years of chronic underfunding," she said. 

"The whole system needs a well thought through sensible cash injection that both improves the working conditions of people that give a lot of time and effort into a really important job in society and also to the pay of everyone in the system. 

"You get a choice when you're 21 years old as to whether you want to be a criminal barrister or whether you want to go and do something fancy for a city law firm and people are increasingly opting not to do the criminal bit."

The total number of outstanding cases across magistrates and crown courts stood at 432,899 as of February, according to Criminal Bar Association (CBA) analysis of the latest official data.

Jo Sidhu QC, chairman of the CBA, said: "The Government may have (also) promised unlimited court sitting days, but there simply aren't enough judges to sit because, as the MoJ knows full well, it can't recruit sufficient judges who are in very large part drawn from the same diminishing pool of criminal barristers who also prosecute and defend and who are leaving in droves."

Former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab - seen here in the House of Commons has been interviewed on TV

Dominic Raab said the government is doing "everything in its power" to address the backlog - Credit: PA

Justice secretary Dominic Raab said: "We are doing everything in our power to bring down the court backlog, and doubling the sentencing powers of magistrates will create more capacity in the crown court to hear the most serious cases."

Bev Higgs, national chair of the Magistrates Association, said: "We are pleased that the Government has placed its confidence in the magistracy and introduced this power, alongside other measures, to ease court delays."