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Magistrates given greater sentencing powers

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The Criminal Bar Association recently commented upon news that the number of cases waiting to be heard across the Magistrates' and Crown Courts stood at 432,899 in February 2022. This backlog was in part due to the pandemic but also down to longstanding systemic issues. This huge backlog of cases obviously presents a big problem in terms of access to justice. It is a problem that the Ministry of Justice hopes can be solved in part by increasing Magistrates' Court sentencing powers.

The change means that magistrates will now have the power to hand out jail sentences of up to a year for a single offence. This will mean that fewer cases will be sent to the Crown Court (where cases take longer to deal with) in the hope that this will reduce the backlog overall. It has been reported that magistrates and legal advisors have been trained ahead of this change. However, the move has been widely criticised by the Criminal Bar Association, Jo Sidhu QC stated "keeping back more cases in the magistrates may in any event only trigger more appeals to the Crown Court, adding to the growing lists of outstanding cases and diverting criminal advocates from tackling the pre-existing pile-up of trials."

The Criminal Bar Association also pointed out that the majority of outstanding cases are mostly Crown Court trials which they claim will be unaffected by the changes to the magistrates sentencing powers and that many defendants who can, will still choose to have a trial by jury again making the new magistrates powers ineffective.

The change in sentencing powers has a number of implications from a defendant’s point of view. The most significant is perhaps that more cases are going to be deemed “suitable for summary trial”. When magistrates decide that a case is suitable for summary trial, the choice of trial venue is then left to the defendant. This means that more defendants will have the option of whether to have their trial in the Magistrates' Court or Crown Court. This is often not a straightforward choice, with pros and cons of each. Factors such as procedure, cost, delay and prospects of conviction all have to be weighed in the balance. Our solicitors will give advice tailored to the specific case and client in order to help our clients make the right choice.

It is important that you obtain specialist legal advice at the earliest opportunity if you are accused of a crime. At Stephensons, our criminal defence department have a combined 200 years of experience of successfully representing people facing criminal charges. If you do require our assistance please do not hesitate to contact someone from the department on 0161 696 6188  or complete an enquiry form.

By Elyssia Robinson-Fielding, graduate paralegal