The backlog in the criminal courts has been an issue for some time. Although the number of outstanding cases grew during the pandemic, there was already a backlog. The government has considered various ways of dealing with the issue, including temporary courts. The most recent announcement is that the government are to give greater sentencing powers to magistrates.
The current situation
At the moment, the magistrates' court can impose up to six months imprisonment for an offence. When the court is sentencing for more than one either-way offence, they have the power to impose up to 12 months' imprisonment. These sentencing powers apply to adults.
Interestingly, there is a power to impose a 2-year detention and training order in the youth court. The reasoning behind that greater power is to keep youths, where possible, in the less formal environment of the youth court.
If, for example, a single offence of theft or burglary deserved more than six months imprisonment, it would have to be sent to the crown court for sentencing.
The maximum six-month sentence is proposed to be increased to 12 months. This "new" maximum has been mentioned in new legislation for years, so it has been on the cards for some time. In 2019 the expansion of the magistrates' sentencing powers was discussed in parliament. It was said that most of the evidence received from the 2016 Committee supported the implementation of legislation to increase sentencing powers for a single offence from six to 12 months.
The government says that the move would free up an estimated 2,000 extra days in the crown court as cases would be dealt with in the lower court rather than having to be sent to the crown court to be dealt with.
The magistrates would be in a position to deal with the more serious assault, burglary and theft cases meaning that they did not have to be sent to the crown court.
The Secretary of State for Justice, Dominic Raab, said that the move will provide "vital additional capacity to drive down the backlog of cases in the Crown Courts over the coming years." He also referred to the additional methods introduced to reduce the backlog, such as the temporary courts, known as Nightingale courts, digital hearings and unlimited sitting days. Previously he has announced extra funding to "support recovery in the courts".
The Chair of the Bar Council said that he thought the changes would cause increases in the prison population and therefore create more pressure on the Ministry of Justice budget. He was also concerned that the change would result in more defendants electing crown court trial, which would be counterproductive.
The National Chair of the Magistrates' Association said the group was "delighted" and that they had been campaigning for years for sentencing powers to be extended.
The vice chair of the Criminal Bar Association has warned that the number of appeals to the crown court may increase and called instead for power funding of the system.
Lawyers involved in the criminal justice system have said there will be a devasting impact on an already struggling system. Concerns have also been reported that barristers’ incomes would be hit by the reduced cases, which is of particular concern when the level of funding is already an issue.
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[Image: "Birmingham Magistrates' Courts / Victoria Law Courts" by ell brown is licensed under CC BY 2.0]