The Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, the Rt Hon Dominic Raab MP, has today announced that magistrates’ sentencing powers will increase from six to 12 months for a single offence, to help ease the backlog of cases in the crown court.
The move has been welcomed by the Magistrates’ Association, which has been advocating for this change for more than a decade—most recently in a letter to the justice secretary in October in the light of concern about the delays in hearing cases involving violence against women and girls.
While outstanding cases in magistrates’ courts initially rose substantially during the pandemic, they have now fallen to levels comparable to those before. However, the number of outstanding cases in the crown court remains much higher than previously, with some cases being set a trial date for next year.
Ministry of Justice figures show victims are waiting more than 600 days for justice after a crime, a rise of more than 50 per cent in the past year. Such a delay increases pressure on defendants, witnesses and victims of crime. The increase in sentencing powers will mean that less serious crimes can be heard in magistrates’ courts, thus freeing up capacity—nearly 2,000 extra days—in the crown court for more serious crimes.
The changes are limited to ‘triable-either-way’ offences, meaning that defendants can still have their case heard by a jury if they wish. Additional training will be provided for magistrates to enable them to use their new powers consistently and appropriately.
Bev Higgs, National Chair of the Magistrates’ Association, said:
“We have been campaigning for years for magistrates’ sentencing powers to be extended to 12 months for single offences, so we are delighted with the Lord Chancellor’s announcement today. 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.
Magistrates have been integral in keeping the justice system functioning during the Covid-19 pandemic and, by enabling them to hear more serious offences, this new provision will mean they can contribute to easing the extreme pressure on the crown court.
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.”