Magistrates ‘disappointed’ as sentencing powers cut amid prison places crisis

Westminster Magistrates’ Court (PA) (PA Archive)
Westminster Magistrates’ Court (PA) (PA Archive)

Magistrates say they are “incredibly disappointed” at the government’s decision to cut back their sentencing powers in the midst of the prison places crisis.

Lower courts were given the power to jail offenders for up to a year in a reform announced last May, in a move intended to help take pressure off the overloaded Crown Courts.

However, the Ministry of Justice quietly laid a new statutory instrument before Parliament on Thursday, reversing the measure and limiting magistrates’ sentencing powers again to six months in prison.

Responding to the news, Mark Beattie, the National Chair of the Magistrates’ Association, said: “We are incredibly disappointed.

“The extension of magistrates’ sentencing powers from six to 12 months is something we had long campaigned for as a vital means of ensuring speedier justice for all. It was succeeding - delivering faster results for victims, witnesses and defendants.”

He suggested the government’s U-turn would “slow down justice”, and added that the Association has been assured the change is a “temporary pause”.

“We will be urging the government to restore magistrates’ extended powers as soon as possible”, he said.

Barrister, however, opposed the move to extend magistrates sentencing powers, warning of a surge of defendants electing Crown Court trials, increased appeals of magistrates’ decisions, and increased pressure on prison place.

“Giving additional sentencing powers to magistrates always would increase the risk of additional people being imprisoned for short sentences which places pressure on already overcrowded prisons”, said Kirsty Brimelow KC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, welcoming the news.

“Government needs to focus on full implementation of the Criminal Legal Aid Advisory Board, recommended by Sir Christopher Bellamy, in order to stop the criminal justice system lurching from crisis to crisis.”

The Ministry of Justice is currently dealing with a crisis over prison places, with police stations being co-opted as makeshift jails alongside temporary pop-up cells as part of its Operation Safeguard response.

Senior judges have also indicated that the prison places crisis is a justified reason for imposing suspended jail sentences or shortening offenders’ time behind bars.

Tougher sentencing powers for magistrates enabled the lower courts to sentence more offenders rather than sending their case to the Crown Court to be dealt with.

However, a message from the Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett of Maldon to magistrates outlined the problems that had developed.

“The government points to downstream pressures in the system that have arisen since the extended powers were introduced, as manifested in Operation Safeguard.

“As ministers confirmed when it was announced, Operation Safeguard was designed to create contingency in the adult male prison estate following an acute increase in the prison population. That contingency is now being called on.”

He continued: “It was expected that cases would move through the courts more quickly as magistrates courts can dispose of cases faster than the Crown Court, freeing up an anticipated 1700 Crown Court sitting days.

“That in turn will have increased the prison population.

“I am grateful to Magistrates for the way they have taken on the increased responsibility associated with the extended sentencing powers, which has enabled the courts to hear many more cases that would have been possible otherwise.

“The change will have the effect of easing the immediate pressures on the prison estate as some sentencing hearings and trials of either way cases move to be conducted in the Crown Court. In the medium term, all these cases will be tried there and, where relevant, defendants will be sentenced.”

The effect of the change will come into effect from March 30.

An MoJ spokesman said: "We thank the magistrates for all their hard work to help us bring down the backlog following the pandemic and ensure victims get the justice they deserve.

"Increasing their sentencing powers was one of many measures introduced to help address the impact of the pandemic on the criminal justice system, but we have always retained the flexibility for this to be changed."