Written by Lisa Whitehead, Head of Membership, Branch Development and Events at the Magistrates’ Association
This year I was fortunate enough to attend a breakout session at our 2022 annual conference that used the example of motoring offences to highlight how magistrates’ feedback affects sentencing guidelines.
Jo King JP, trustee of the Magistrates’ Association (MA) and magistrate member of the Sentencing Council, opened the session by explaining that the Sentencing Council is an independent, arm’s length body of the Ministry of Justice that is charged with promoting greater transparency and consistency in sentencing. Established in 2010, it develops sentencing guidelines and monitors their use, assesses the impact of guidelines on sentencing practice, and promotes public confidence in the criminal justice system.
Ollie Simpson, Senior Policy Advisor at the Sentencing Council, used the example of motoring offences to demonstrate how the Council decides which offences need guidelines, how it develops guidelines, and how magistrates’ feedback impacts these.
He explained that magistrates—alongside other key stakeholders—are often asked for their input as guidelines are being developed. They might be interviewed, surveyed, asked to road-test proposed guidelines to ensure they flow properly, invited to participate in public consultations, and/or provide suggestions via the Council’s online feedback form.
In the case of the Council’s recent consultation on 12 new and revised guidelines for offenders convicted of motoring offences, Ollie reported that more than 300 magistrates responded. Some questioned the meaning of an “impeccable driving record” and wanted more detail on what impairment means for drug-driving, while others suggested that higher sentences could be given for causing serious injury and lower sentences for “honest mistakes”. The MA also responded to this consultation on behalf of its members.
Once guidelines are approved, the Council then works with the Judicial College to ensure that the right training is in place for magistrates before they come into use. It was fascinating to learn how guidelines are developed.
During the discussion, members alerted the Council to challenges they’ve faced in using its search function and suggested it makes the guidelines easier to navigate. Very positively, some of these suggestions were implemented live during the session!
Overall, it was heartening to hear how thorough the process is, and great to learn that there are a variety of ways that magistrates can get their voices heard and listened to in this space.
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