Will increased sentencing powers for magistrates solve the court backlog problem?
Churchers partner Hannah Jones doesn’t think so.
Sentencing powers at magistrates’ courts were increased at the beginning of May in a bid to reduce a backlog and delays for cases at crown court.
Magistrates were only able to impose a maximum of six months in prison for a single offence. This meant that more serious cases where longer sentences were considered necessary were previously always sent to the crown court.
Why have things changed?
Head of the Churchers criminal team, Hannah Jones said the rationale behind the increased powers was to clear the backlog of cases in the crown court which was significantly worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic when the courts were operating on a skeleton basis and all jury trials were postponed.
At Churchers, we have a number of cases where there is now a delay of 10 months or more between plea hearing and trial. In addition, we have a number of cases where trials are being moved to an alternative crown court to try to help clear the backlog – meaning that defendants and complainants are often having to travel much further, causing greater inconvenience for all.
How will the change help the delay?
The thinking is that if more cases are kept in the magistrates court then the crown court will have more time to focus on the more serious matters, which will potentially assist to clear the backlog.
The Ministry of Justice say that all magistrates and legal advisors have been provided with further training ahead of the increased powers.
Our view on the likely impact of the change
It is widely accepted that conviction rates are much higher in the magistrates court. When a defendant is charged with an “either way” offence defendants have the option of electing to have a jury trial in the crown court. It is likely that the increased powers at the magistrates court may well lead to a higher number of defendants opting to have their case dealt with at the crown court, therefore not really alleviating the current strain.
The increase in powers is also likely to lead to an increased number of appeals from the magistrates court to the crown court.
This backlog is not just because of the Covid-19 pandemic but as a result of years of funding cuts.