As part of the latest response to clear the immense court backlog, Magistrates in England and Wales are to be given greater sentencing powers. Currently, magistrates may only sentence up to six months imprisonment for a single offence. Under the new plans, this will be raised to one year for ‘either-way’ offices, which are offences that may be tried in the magistrates court or the Crown Court. This should, in turn, enable magistrates to take more cases from the Crown Court.
Magistrates are volunteers who sit in the criminal and family courts to make decisions on cases which do not require the legal training and expertise of a judge. They take on over one million cases per year. Magistrates come from all walks of life, and do not need any legal education or background. They are assisted and given legal expertise on the bench by a Justices’ Clerk who is a barrister or solicitor of at least five years’ standing.
Extensive court closures coupled with reduced staffing has meant that there has been a vast backlog of cases within all courts in England and Wales for many years, which was then critically exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. As of mid-2021, there were 60,000 outstanding cases in the courts, with waiting times now dragging on longer than ever. Victims of serious crime now have to wait an average of 622 days before they see the conclusion of the case. The Ministry of Justice estimate that the increase in magistrate’s powers will mean 500 cases per year will be diverted away from the Crown Court, giving judges more time to focus on the most serious and severe crimes and thus reduce the backlog.
A number of emergency measures were put in place specifically to combat the 22,000 increase in backlog caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. These included the removal of any limit on the number of days the Crown Court could sit per year, as well as funding for 32 Nightingale Crown courtrooms until April 2022. These measures are set to come to an end in April 2022. What is clear is that the impact of the increased sentencing powers will barely scrape the surface of the 60,000 case build-up, and will struggle to compensate for the further incoming wave of disruption, which will be caused by government plans to close 77 more courts by 2025/26.
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