England: Magistrates’ courts given more power to tackle backlog

England: Magistrates’ courts given more power to tackle backlog

Magistrates in England and Wales are to have their sentencing powers increased in order to reduce pressure on the Crown Courts and “speed up justice”, it was confirmed today.

Under plans announced by Justice Secretary Dominic Raab, the maximum six-month prison sentence that can currently be handed out by magistrates is to be doubled to a year – freeing up an estimated 2,000 extra days of Crown Court time annually.

Today’s move will increasingly allow the serious cases heard by magistrates – such as fraud, theft and assault – to be sentenced by them too. At present, any crimes warranting a jail term of more than six months must be sent to Crown Court where judges determine the appropriate sentence.

Retaining more cases in the magistrates’ courts, which have been less severely affected by Covid, means Crown Courts can focus their resources on tackling the backlog which has built up during the pandemic.

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.”

Bev Higgs, national chair of the Magistrates’ Association, said: “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.

“Magistrates have been integral in keeping the justice system functioning during the Covid-19 pandemic and, by enabling them to hear more serious offences, this new provision will mean they can contribute to easing the pressure on the Crown Courts.”

The Secret Barrister tweeted: “There is literally no problem in criminal justice that this government – with its childlike conception of criminal justice (‘police catch bad man who then goes to prison forever!’) – does not think can be solved by longer prison sentences. 

“We are governed by 8-year-olds.”

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