Magistrates will be able to jail people for a year as powers doubled overnight

Currently JPs can only hand out sentences of six months or less – but this time period will be doubled in the coming months in a bid to tackle the Covid backlog

Magistrates will have more scope to send people to jail (stock image)
Magistrates will have more scope to send people to jail (stock image)

Magistrates will be able to jail people for a year as their sentencing powers are doubled overnight to tackle the Covid backlog.

The government announced the dramatic move today, claiming it could free up almost 2,000 extra days of crown court time a year.

The changes will come into force in the coming months thanks to a legal order signed by Justice Secretary Dominic Raab.

But critics warned it was a “sticking plaster” that could actually add to the backlog, because more defendants could opt for a full Crown Court trial.

The powers will only apply to “either-way” offences that can be tried either in a magistrates’ or a crown court, with the defendant having some level of choice.

They will not apply to “summary-only” offences that are tried in a magistrates’ court no matter what.

The government announced the dramatic move today


Alamy Stock Photo)

Government officials claimed the move would have no bearing on prison sentences in the Police Bill, which is passing through its final stages in Parliament.

That Bill will jail protesters who lock themselves to gates for up to six months – but this will rise to 12 months once magistrates get the power to jail “summary-only” offences for a year.

The move will allow magistrates to sentence more serious cases they hear, such as fraud, theft and assault.

At present, crimes warranting a jail term of more than six months have to be sent to a crown court for sentencing.

Justice Secretary Dominic Raab said: “This important measure will provide vital additional capacity to drive down the backlog of cases in the Crown Courts over the coming years.

“Together with the Nightingale Courts, digital hearings and unlimited sitting days, we will deliver swifter and more effective justice as we build back a stronger, safer and fairer society after the pandemic.”

But Alex Cunningham, Labour’s shadow courts and sentencing minister, described the move as “another sticking plaster” solution, adding: “Ministers must give assurances that greater powers for magistrates won’t inflict even more burden on crown courts – with increased numbers of appeals overloading a diminishing number of criminal advocates left in the system.”

Mark Fenhalls QC, chairman of the Bar Council, said: “We believe that these changes will simply increase the prison population and put further pressure on the Ministry of Justice budget.

“This will mean less money available to keep the courts running.

“It is also quite possible that the changes may prompt more defendants to elect trial in the crown court, increasing the trial backlog.

“This would damage the interests of complainants and victims and be counterproductive to everything we are trying to achieve to deliver timely and fair justice.”

Jo Sidhu QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, described the plan as “distraction politics at its worst, claimed that “fiddling with magistrates’ sentencing powers is a betrayal of victims of crime” and warned that the move may trigger more appeals of cases to the crown court and only add to the backlog.

Stuart Matthews, partner at criminal defence firm Reeds Solicitors, branded the decision an “easy lever to pull” and “cut-price, bottom barrel criminal justice, plumbing new depths” and warned people to “be afraid” as he described magistrates as largely “untrained volunteers, many of whom do not understand even the most basic of legal principles”.

The changes, expected to come into force in the coming months, will only apply to so-called ‘either-way’ offences which can be dealt with by magistrates or crown courts. It will mean defendants can still opt to have their case heard by a jury in a crown court if they wish.

Training will be provided by the Judicial College to make sure the powers are used “consistently and appropriately”.

An amendment to the Judicial Review and Courts Bill will mean the Government will have powers to reverse the change if needed.

Bev Higgs, national chairman of the Magistrates’ Association which has campaigned for sentencing powers to be extended, said the organisation was “delighted” with the announcement, adding: “It is absolutely the right time to re-align where cases are heard to ensure a safe, effective, and efficient justice system and this demonstrates great confidence in the magistracy.

“I know our members and colleagues will take up this new level of responsibility with pride, professionalism, and integrity and will – as always – strive to deliver the highest quality of justice in their courts.”

Last year Whitehall’s spending watchdog the National Audit Office warned the criminal courts backlog would “remain a problem for many years” after the number of outstanding cases in the crown courts reached record highs of almost 61,000 and more than 364,000 in magistrates’ courts before beginning to slowly reduce.

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