Having a backlog of cases in the criminal courts has been a problem for quite some time. Despite the fact that the number of unresolved cases increased during the pandemic, there was already a backlog. The government has considered a number of options for dealing with the situation, including the use of temporary courts. The most recent announcement is that the government intends to give magistrates greater sentencing authority.
The current state of affairs
At the moment, the magistrates’ court has the authority to sentence a person to up to six months imprisonment for a crime. Whenever a court is sentencing someone for more than one either-way offence, they have the authority to sentence them to up to 12 months in prison. These sentencing options are available to adults.
In an unusual twist, the youth court has the authority to impose a two-year detention and training order on a defendant. The rationale behind this increased authority is to keep youths in the less formal environment of the juvenile court as long as they possibly can.
If, for example, a single theft or burglary offence warranted more than six months in prison, the case would be referred to the crown court for sentencing consideration.
A proposal has been made
It is proposed that the maximum six-month sentence be increased to a 12-month sentence. It has been years since this “new” maximum has been mentioned in new legislation, indicating that it has been in the works for quite some time. The expansion of the sentencing authority of magistrates was debated in the British Parliament in 2019. As stated, the majority of evidence received by the 2016 Committee supported passage of legislation to increase the maximum sentence for a single offence from six to twelve months in length.
Cases would be dealt with in lower courts rather than being sent to the crown court for consideration, according to the government, which estimates that this would free up an additional 2,000 days in Crown Court.
The magistrates would be in a position to deal with the more serious assault, burglary, and theft cases, avoiding the need for them to be referred to the crown court for trial.
Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab has stated that the move will provide “vital additional capacity to drive down the backlog of cases in the Crown Courts over the coming years.” according to Raab. He also mentioned the additional methods that have been implemented to reduce the backlog, such as the temporary courts, also known as Nightingale courts, digital hearings, and unlimited sitting days, all of which have been successful. Previously, he announced additional funding to “assist in the recovery process in the courts.”
The Chair of the Bar Council stated that he believed the changes would result in an increase in the prison population, which would put additional strain on the Ministry of Justice’s budget. He was also concerned that the change would lead to an increase in the number of defendants choosing to go to trial in the crown court, which would be counterproductive.
The National Chair of the Magistrates’ Association stated that the group was “delighted” and that they had been campaigning for the extension of sentencing powers for several years prior to the announcement of the decision.
The vice chair of the Criminal Bar Association has expressed concern about an increase in the number of appeals to the Crown Court and has called for increased funding of the system through public funds.
Lawyers who work in the criminal justice system have predicted that the decision will have a devastating effect on an already struggling system. There have also been reports of concerns that the reduced number of cases would have an impact on barristers’ incomes, which is particularly concerning given the fact that funding is already at a premium.