Controversial new jailing powers now in force

04/05/2022

Magistrates now have the authority to sentence people to a term of up to a year in prison (doubling their sentencing powers) due to a controversial new Government ruling which came into force on 2nd May 2022.

What are the new sentencing rules?

Previously, cases warranting longer than a 6-month custodial term were required to go to the Crown Court. However, magistrates will now be able to pass the longer sentences in cases such as fraud, theft, and assault. The Ministry of Justice said the latest measure, announced in January, will free up to an extra 1,700 days of Crown court time annually, aiming to drive down the Crown court backlog. But the move has not been welcomed by all.

Jon Black, a former president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association, said: ‘Removing from society for six months (of a 12-month sentence) is too serious, has an incredibly wide knock-on effect and should be the presenter of professional judges with years of legal experience and training, not volunteers with spare time to give.

It has been said that magistrates will only be receiving half a day’s training on the new prison sentencing powers afforded to them. The ministry’s press release did not contain details of the training. However, magistrates were informed last month that they must complete half a day’s training before commencing their new powers. The Judicial College, responsible for providing the training, reportedly issued a notice on its learning management system for magistrates and legal advisers sitting in the criminal jurisdiction. The notice says:

This new training is essential for those magistrates and legal advisers. It will take approximately ½ day to complete, must be completed prior to implementation of the provisions (25 April 2022) and will be followed by webinars arranged locally in April/May. (This eLearning is modular and progress will be saved so it does not have to be completed in one sitting,’ 

It is also thought that the increased sentencing powers may also trigger more appeals to the Crown Court, which would aggravate, as opposed to ease, the backlog.

The Criminal Bar Association, who criticised the move, said that increasing magistrates’ sentencing power would have a ‘negligible impact on the current logjam of 60,000 cases’  

Jo Sidhu QC and Kirsty Brimelow QC – chair and vice-chair of the CBA – wrote in a letter in the Telegraph: 'All that will be achieved by giving magistrates the power to lock people up for longer is to increase the number of appeals to the Crown court, thereby clogging up the system even more, and critically overloading the few criminal advocates we have left

There is also the common thought that the new sentencing powers will impose a strain on the Ministry of Justice budget and increase the prison population, which is already overloaded, as echoed by Mark Fenhalls QC, the chair of the Bar Council.

Whilst there is no doubt that solutions are needed to ease the pressures of the criminal justice system, whether this is the right step forward remains to be seen.  

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