Magistrates will be given more sentencing powers in a bid to tackle the backlog of cases waiting to be dealt with by criminal courts.
In the latest effort to reduce 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 of six months.
But critics warned the plan could have the opposite effect and actually add to the backlog while branding it a “sticking plaster” solution.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) 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.
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, according to the MoJ.
Justice Secretary Dominic Raab said: “This important measure will provide vital additional capacity to drive down the backlog of cases in the crown courts over the coming years.
“Together with the Nightingale Courts, digital hearings and unlimited sitting days, we will deliver swifter and more effective justice as we build back a stronger, safer and fairer society after the pandemic.”
But Alex Cunningham, Labour’s shadow courts and sentencing minister, described the move as “another sticking plaster” solution, adding: “Ministers must give assurances that greater powers for magistrates won’t inflict even more burden on crown courts – with increased numbers of appeals overloading a diminishing number of criminal advocates left in the system.”
Mark Fenhalls QC, chairman of the Bar Council, 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.”
Jo Sidhu QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, described the plan as “distraction politics at its worst, claimed that “fiddling with magistrates’ sentencing powers is a betrayal of victims of crime” and warned that the move may trigger more appeals of cases to the crown court and only add to the backlog.
Stuart Matthews, partner at criminal defence firm Reeds Solicitors, branded the decision an “easy lever to pull” and “cut-price, bottom barrel criminal justice, plumbing new depths” and warned people to “be afraid” as he described magistrates as largely “untrained volunteers, many of whom do not understand even the most basic of legal principles”.
The changes, 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.
Training will be provided by the Judicial College to make sure the powers are used “consistently and appropriately”.
An amendment to the Judicial Review and Courts Bill will mean the Government will have powers to reverse the change if needed.
Bev Higgs, national chairman 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 re-align 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.”
Last year Whitehall’s spending watchdog the National Audit Office warned 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.