Increased Sentencing Powers For Magistrates – Blog By Laura Duff

Published on 24/01/2022

In a bid to help tackle the ever-increasing backlog of cases that courts are facing, the government has recently announced (confirmed 18/01/2022) an increase to magistrates’ sentencing powers. Magistrates will now be able to hand out sentences of up to a year, twice the current maximum. 

The number of cases waiting for a trial date has long been an issue faced by our legal system, but it has been compounded by the pandemic which unsurprisingly, led to an increase in delays. The current backlog for the Crown Court sits at around 60,000 cases. The government says that by increasing sentencing powers in the magistrates’ courts they are able to free up around 2,000 extra days of Crown Court time.

The decision to increase magisterial sentencing powers may, however, not be the solution it promises to be. Some defendants charged with an either-way offence (an offence that can be tried in either the magistrates’ court or the Crown Court) have the option to go the Crown Court for trial rather than remain in the magistrates’. Indeed, this is the course of action commonly advised by defence barristers who are acutely aware that the chances of conviction in the magistrates’ court are noticeably greater than they are in the Crown Court.

In the past, some defendants nevertheless chose to remain in the magistrates’ court for trial as sentencing powers there were lower (a maximum of six months). The government’s decision, however, considerably lessens that incentive and it seems there is little left to persuade defendants to keep their trials in the magistrates’ courts. It is arguable therefore, that this move will ultimately prove to be ineffectual with many saying that the practical result will be an increase in elections to the Crown Court, rather than the magistrates’ courts assuming more of the burden.