You may have heard of magistrates in relation to the Magistrates’ Court when reading or watching the news. But, you might not know what a magistrate is or the legal powers they have when sentencing someone in court.
If you’ve recently read a headline about new sentencing powers for magistrates, read on, as we’ll reveal how these work in detail.
In this guide, we’ll help you understand the sentencing power of the Magistrates’ Court.
Who presides over the Magistrates’ Court
What sentencing powers exist in the court
What the new changes are to magistrates’ sentencing power
What is the Magistrates’ Court?
The Magistrates’ Court deals with most of the adult criminal cases in England and Wales. There are over 150 across the country, so if you’re being sentenced, there are a number of different courts where your hearing might be held.
Magistrates’ courts usually hear less serious cases such as motoring offences, instead referring serious cases like murder to the Crown Court. However, it does hold preliminary hearings for more serious offences.
Magistrates’ courts can also keep offenders in custody in between hearings or allow bail to be posted with conditions such as staying away from certain places and people, or wearing a tag.
Youth cases and some civil proceedings are also held in the Magistrates’ Court.
Who hears cases in magistrates’ court?
This court is named after the legal professionals that hear cases - magistrates. District judges can also hear cases in magistrates’ court.
There is no jury in magistrates’ court. This is because the court handles ‘summary only’ offences, which include:
Sentencing powers in magistrates’ court
Magistrates can enact a range of sentences from unlimited fines to bans, community orders, and up to 12 months imprisonment. The sentence that will be handed down by the court depends entirely on the nature of the offence and its severity.
Are you planning on going to magistrates’ court to contest a driving ban or fine? Then you may want to read our guide on representing yourself in court.
Recent legislation changes to sentencing powers for magistrates
The extended range of powers was designed to ease the impact of the pandemic on the criminal justice system at the time and to free up ‘around 1,700 extra days of Crown Court time each year’.
The new powers in a nutshell:
Magistrates could issue prison sentences of up to 12 months for only one offence
Previously magistrates could only issue 6-month sentences
Dominic Raab, the Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Justice at the time said:
“We are doing everything in our power to bring down the court backlog, and doubling the sentencing powers of magistrates will create more capacity in the Crown Court to hear the most serious cases.
Together with an extra 30 Nightingale courtrooms currently open, digital hearings and allowing the Crown Court to hear as many cases as possible for another financial year, we will deliver swifter and more effective justice for victims.”
The National Chair of the Magistrates’ Association said:
“The Magistrates’ Association has long called for this measure; it will lead to more timely justice that can only benefit all court users - defendants, complainants and witnesses”.
Have the new measures been effective?
At the time that the increased powers were put in place, there was a backlog of 60,000 cases in line to be heard at the Crown Court.
So, have the new measures been effective more than a year on?
Well, on March 9th 2023, less than a year after the new measures came in, they were reversed by the Government. Now that magistrates powers have been rolled back, they can only impose a sentence of imprisonment of up to 6 months under Regulation 2 of the Sentencing Act 2020 Magistrates’ Court Sentencing Powers, Amendment, Regulations 2023.
This was predicted by some commentators as prisons were increasingly overcrowded at the time.
Many in the legal community also criticised the proposal when they were first tabled. The Criminal Bar Association, for instance, were concerned that the new powers would lead to a greater number of shorter prison sentences.
They feared that this would have a knock-on effect on the Crown Court with more defendants taking their case to the Crown Court for a trial hearing and also result in more appeals to the court.
When the increased powers were overturned, the Magistrate’s Association stated that they were disappointed with the reversal and said they would lobby the Government for a return to the extended powers.
The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) were careful to describe the return to the usual powers as a pause, rather than a permanent reversal.
But were the MOJ too hasty to overturn their decision?
There were some positive signs that the reforms were working to some degree and could have been beneficial to further reducing court backlogs if persisted with.
The reform in numbers:
Committals for sentence fell 10% between quarter 1-3 of 2022. Committals for sentencing happen when magistrates have found someone guilty of a crime, but believe their sentencing powers are not enough to hand down an appropriate sentence
Appeals to the Crown Court fell 5% during the same time period; moreover the decline was consistent throughout the first three quarters of last year
Either way sentences declined ─ cases that can be heard in the Magistrates’ court or the Crown Court. This certainty on where a case can be heard obviously saves time and takes pressure off the Crown Court, exactly what the new powers for magistrates was designed to do
Prison numbers rise 4,000 - could this be the key reason the Government reversed the reforms? Was it necessary to take pressure off a chronically struggling prison industry?
So were the positive declines in committals for sentence, appeals to the Crown Court and either way sentences worth it for the Government?
Well, barristers went on strike in July 2022, over pay disputes. At the time, the courts still had a backlog of 58,000 cases, with Dominic Raab saying the strikes would ‘delay justice’.
Yes, the increased powers increased the number of longer sentences the magistrates’ court could impose, but this led to a pressure point of overcrowded prisons. Coupled with the barrister strike, the justice system was in worse shape in mid-2022 than it was at the beginning of the year.
The Court of Appeal went as far as saying ‘the impact of the current prison population levels’ should considered when judges prepare sentences, including deciding the length of terms and if they should be suspended.
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