Magistrates are to be given greater sentencing powers. Soon, magistrates will be able to impose up to 12 months’ imprisonment for a single offence. It is hoped this will clear the backlog of cases in the judicial system, although not everyone agrees with the proposal.

Local Magistrates  – England and Wales

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Magistrates’ powers – what’s changing?

Currently, the Magistrates’ Court can only impose a maximum sentence of six months’ imprisonment for an offence involving an adult defendant. This is increased to 12 months’ imprisonment where the court is sentencing for more than one either-way offence.

The rules are actually slightly different in the youth court, where the court has the power to impose a two-year detention and training order.

However, as it stands at the moment, the Magistrates’ Court cannot deal with offences that deserve more than six months’ imprisonment (where the offender is an adult). Instead, all these cases much be passed to the Crown Court. The government says this is causing significant delays, a problem which has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

The government has therefore proposed that magistrates get greater sentencing powers. The maximum six-month sentence is set to be increased to 12 months. It is estimated that this would free up 2,000 extra days in Crown Court, as cases such as serious assault, burglary and theft could be dealt with at the Magistrates’ Court instead.

Differing opinions

The Secretary of State for Justice, Dominic Raab, said that the move will provide “vital additional capacity to drive down the backlog of cases in the Crown Courts over the coming years.” Magistrates are also pleased with the news, with the National Chair of the Magistrates’ Association saying the group was “delighted”.

However, not everyone shares the same enthusiasm. The Chair of the Bar Council believes the changes will increase the prison population and result in more defendants asking for a Crown Court trial. This opinion was echoed by the Vice-Chair of the Criminal Bar Association, who warned that the number of appeals to the Crown Court would increase. There are also concerns that barristers’ incomes could be impacted by the reduced number of cases.

What happens next?

It is thought the changes will be implemented in the coming months. Giving magistrates greater sentencing powers has been under discussion for a long time, even before the pandemic hit. Evidence was gathered back in 2016 that supported the increase in sentencing powers for a single offence from six months to 12 months.

We will keep you updated as and when further announcements are made. We will of course advise our clients as to what this news means for their case, and the best approach to take going forward.

Solicitors – England and Wales

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