Effective justice? Magistrates’ sentencing powers double to 12 months to help clear Crown Court backlog
This month Magistrates have been granted new powers to impose terms of imprisonment up to 12 months, for ‘either-way offences’, enabling Magistrates’ Courts to hear a broader range of matters. The extended sentencing powers are contained in the controversial Judicial Review and Courts Act 2022, which was given Royal Assent on 28 April 2022.
The measure has been taken in response to the unprecedented backlog of Crown Court cases caused by the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns (currently approximately 60,000 cases). It is hoped that Magistrates will be less inclined to send cases to the Crown Court for sentencing in that range of cases where the likely sentence falls within the 6-12-month bracket. Magistrates will be required to undertake further training.
Increasing Magistrates’ sentencing powers should help reduce the Crown Court backlog and save the cost associated with cases that are committed to the Crown Court for sentencing. The Ministry of Justice estimate that the new powers will free up to 1,700 sitting days in the Crown Court, thereby enabling better access to justice for those awaiting trial, reducing the amount of time defendants are in custody or subject to bail conditions. In theory, the increased sentencing powers should not result in individuals receiving higher sentences. A defendant can appeal any sentence imposed, although as the threshold for appealing a sentence is relatively high, it is possible that in practice tougher sentences passed by magistrates will be upheld (to successfully appeal a sentence it must be shown that the sentence was ‘manifestly excessive’, rather than just ‘harsh’/higher than the appellate court would have imposed).
Critics of the proposals have also expressed concern that increased sentencing powers should not be awarded for the purpose of expedience and point to fears that they may lead to the imposition of excessive sentences. The length of time allocated to each matter is far shorter than matters in the Crown Court, leading to concerns that sentences may be passed without due consideration to evidential issues and other relevant information. This may lead to an increased number of appeals which will could undermine the initiative – such appeals being made to the Crown Court. The practical consequences of this initiative and whether it is likely to remain in force for the long term remain to be seen.
Articles are intended as an introduction to the topic and do not constitute legal advice.