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While the court backlog figures continue to paint a bleak picture, magistrates are to be appointed to tackle the enormous backlog of cases – the latest reform to sentencing limits since the introduction of the Summary Jurisdiction Act (1879).
At the height of the pandemic, untried court cases had risen to 525,000 in July 2020. Covid-19 saw trials moving from courtrooms to virtual hearings. The announcement comes amid a backlog of 372,000 cases in the magistrates court and 58,728 in the Crown Court.
A welcome change from many, until technological issues, postponement of virtual hearings and evasive behaviours has proven the digitalisation of the court system to be problematic.
A look at the present
Now, magistrates are to be given higher sentencing powers – double the current maximum of six months. Typically, sentences that warranted more than a six-month sentence were sent to the Crown Court, contributing to backlogs of cases going unheard for years. The change will allow magistrates to sentence those convicted of a crime for up to a one-year jail sentence.
For either-way offences, defendants can still opt for cases to be heard in magistrates or Crown Court. As such, magistrates have the option to hear more serious cases, such as fraud, theft and assault. Nonetheless, it cannot be said with precision how long it will take to tackle the backlog.
But has public confidence diminished?
Generally, magistrates are volunteers with no legal training. Their increased power would not only increase the pressure on legal advisers within the magistrates’ courts, but trigger appeals in the Crown Court to challenge the sentencing.
To make matters worse, the increased number of jail sentences will increase the prison population. The government will need to refocus its attention on prisons – the inevitable increase in the prison population will worsen the prison conditions, posing a higher risk to public health.
Many psychological studies, such as research conducted by Gerald Gaes and the Stanford Prison Experiment by Phillip Zambardo, found a correlation between overcrowded prisons and mental illness, substance availability and misuse, social and psychological stresses, aggression, and harm to oneself. This will prejudice an offender’s chance for rehabilitation and strike the pressure on other professions that are aligned to the criminal justice system.
The increase in magistrates' powers has not only attracted criticism but resurged the age-old proposals to supposedly close magistrates’ courts. While there is a focus on justice being achieved at a greater speed, the change in magistrates’ power is counterproductive.
Complainants and victims of crime may think that their cases will go unheard in the right court. So, could it be said that we are prioritising the number of cases that are heard over achieving justice?
This further heightens the pressure on the justice system and reduces the amount of work available to criminal lawyers in the Crown Court.
Perhaps, it could be argued that if the focus shifted to the increase of legal aid by investing in the criminal justice system, there would be a reduction in the number of lawyers that leave the profession – a more effective way of ensuring that cases aren’t pushed back for the lack of lawyers. The only real solution is to reverse legal aid cuts. Without this, the courts will continue to see pressure in the years ahead in the potential rise in prosecutions.