The maximum 6-month prison sentence that can currently be handed out by Magistrates is to be doubled to a year, Justice Secretary Dominic Raab has announced.
The Ministry of Justice suggested that the change would free up an estimated 2,000 extra days of Crown Court time annually.
“Today’s move will increasingly allow the serious cases heard by magistrates – such as fraud, theft and assault – to be sentenced by them too. At present, any crimes warranting a jail term of more than 6 months must be sent to Crown Court where judges determine the appropriate sentence,” it said.
The MoJ added that retaining more cases in the Magistrates’ Courts, which it claimed had been less severely affected by Covid, would mean Crown Courts could focus their resources on tackling its backlog.
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.”
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.”
The changes will come into force in the coming months via a commencement order, signed by the Justice Secretary. They will impact England and Wales.
However, the move has been criticised by criminal barristers.
Mark Fenhalls QC, Chair of the Bar Council, told The Telegraph: “We believe that these changes will simply increase the prison population and put further pressure on the MoJ budget. This will mean less money available to keep the courts running."
Jo Sidhu QC, the chair of the Criminal Bar Association, meanwhile told The Guardian: “Increasing magistrates’ sentencing powers will do nothing to unplug the existing massive backlog of trials stuck in the crown court pipeline.
“This is distraction politics at its worst. The government seems wilfully blind to the stark reality that hundreds of criminal barristers have left the field in despair due to a quarter century of falling real incomes. That is the reason why victims of serious crime are being denied justice in our crown courts.”
He added: “Fiddling with magistrates’ sentencing powers is a betrayal of victims of crime. This is a cynical means of depriving those accused of serious crime from being judged by their peers in our long-established jury system.
“Keeping back more cases in the magistrates will in any event only trigger more appeals to the crown court, adding to the long list of cases and divert criminal advocates from tackling the existing pile-up of trials.”