The maximum prison sentence Magistrates can hand down will be doubled in a bid to reduce the court backlog, it has been announced.
It means Magistrates – volunteers with no legal experience necessary – will be given the power to jail offenders for up to 12 months.
According to Justice Secretary Dominic Raab, the move will free up an estimated 2,000 extra days of Crown Court time annually.
Under the plans, the most serious cases heard by Magistrates – such as fraud, theft, and assault – will be sentenced by them too. The previous rules meant that any criminal case warranting a jail term of more than six months must be sent to a Crown Court where a Judge will determine the appropriate sentence.
Commenting on the announcement, Mr 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.”
Welcoming the move, Bev Higgs, National Chair of the Magistrates’ Association, added: “We have been campaigning for years for magistrates’ sentencing powers to be extended to 12 months for single offences, so we are delighted with the Lord Chancellor’s announcement today. 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.”
Barristers, however, say the move will backfire, as criminal defendants could appeal against sentences given by magistrates or choose to go before a jury – putting additional pressure on the justice system.
“Fiddling with magistrates’ sentencing powers is a betrayal of victims of crime,” said Jo Sidhu, chair of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA).
“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.”
The changes are set to come into force in the “coming months”.
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