Magistrates have had their sentencing powers doubled in a bid to tackle the courts backlog but the move has been criticised as “counter-productive” by lawyers.
The lower courts will now be able to hand out jail terms of up to a year for a single offence – twice as long as the previous maximum – the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) announced.
The plans were first announced in January as part of efforts to address the pile-up of criminal cases waiting to be heard, which was exacerbated by the pandemic.
Deputy Prime Minister, Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary Dominic Raab said: “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.”
Bev Higgs, national chair of the Magistrates Association, said: “We are pleased that the Government has placed its confidence in the magistracy and introduced this power, alongside other measures, to ease court delays.”
The MoJ said magistrates and legal advisers have been provided with training ahead of the change to ensure they know how best to use the new powers.
The new powers will apply to magistrates’ courts across England and Wales and come into effect on Monday.
The change is aimed at freeing up more time for the crown courts to deal with more complex and serious cases and delivering swifter justice for victims, the MoJ said.
It estimates the action could result in almost 2,000 extra days for crown courts per year.
But the move has been heavily criticised by the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), which represents practising barristers across England and Wales.
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 biggest issues contributing to the backlog is the number of outstanding crown court trials, which are unaffected by any change to the sentencing powers of magistrates.
Many 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 typically be dealt with by magistrates if convicted, a CBA spokesperson added.
“We say this is counter-productive as many defendants opt for a crown court trial for either-way offences,” the spokesperson said.
The total number of outstanding cases across magistrates and crown courts stood at 432,899 as of February, according CBA analysis of the latest official data.
Mr Sidhu added: “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.”