Magistrates have had their sentencing powers doubled as part of efforts to address the backlog of criminal cases waiting to be heard.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has said the lower courts will now be able to administer jail terms of up to one year for a single offence, which is twice as long as their previous limit. The move has been the subject of heavy criticism by lawyers.
The measures were first proposed in January in a bid to tackle the courts’ logjam exacerbated by the pandemic.
“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,” justice secretary Dominic Raab said.
According to the MoJ, magistrates and legal advisers have also been provided with training in anticipation of the change to ensure they know how best to wield their new powers.
“We are pleased that the government has placed its confidence in the magistracy and introduced this power, alongside other measures, to ease court delays,” Bev Higgs, national chair of the Magistrates Association, said.
The change could result in almost 2,000 extra days for crown courts per year, freeing up more time to deal with more complex and serious cases, while delivering swifter justice for victims, the MoJ added.
But the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), which represents practising barristers across England and Wales, has slammed the major action as “counterproductive”.
Jo Sidhu QC, chair of the organisation, said: “Keeping back more cases in the magistrates may in any event only trigger more appeals to the crown court, adding to the growing lists of outstanding cases and diverting criminal advocates from tackling the pre-existing pile-up of trials.”
The CBA said one of the key reasons for the logjam is the number of outstanding crown court trials, which will go unaffected by the changes endowed on magistrates’ sentencing powers.
A large proportion of defendants who are charged with offences that can be tried in either crown court or magistrates courts will also choose to have a trial by jury, meaning the sentence would not be dealt with by magistrates if convicted, a CBA spokesperson added. “We say this is counterproductive as many defendants opt for a crown court trial for either-way offences,” they said.
The total number of outstanding cases across magistrates and crown courts stood at 432,899 as of February, according to CBA’s analysis of the latest official data.
“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,” Mr Sidhu added.