New sentencing powers for magistrates could add to backlog, barrister warns

Simon Spence QC talking to the media during Joe Storey's murder trial. Picture : ANTONY KELLY

Simon Spence QC has warned that plans to give magistrates more sentencing powers may add to the court backlog - Credit: copyright ARCHANT 2017

Plans to give magistrates more sentencing powers in a bid to tackle the backlog of criminal court cases could add to the problem, a Suffolk barrister has warned. 

Simon Spence QC said the move will cause more defendants to elect to have their case heard at the crown court - which will therefore add to the backlog of cases. 

The proposal could also lead to an increase in the prison population and more inconsistency in sentencing, Mr Spence warned. 

Under the new plans, magistrates will be able to hand out jail terms of up to a year for a single offence - double the current maximum of six months.

The government hopes the move will reduce the number of outstanding cases and pressure faced by crown courts following delays due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Keeping more cases in magistrates' courts - which have been less severely affected by the pandemic - will free up almost 2,000 extra days of crown court time a year, according to the Ministry of Justice. 

ipswich crown court

The backlog of cases at Ipswich Crown Court more than doubled during the pandemic - Credit: Charlotte Bond

In December, it was revealed that the backlog of cases at Ipswich Crown Court has more than doubled during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Mr Spence, who was the prosecution junior in the case of the Suffolk Strangler Steve Wright, said: "Magistrates are historically less likely to impose suspended sentences than crown court judges.

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"The consequence will be an increase in the prison population of people serving short sentences, which runs contrary to what has been good sentencing practice for a number of years now. 

"Also, in deciding whether to plead guilty or not guilty and in deciding whether to stay in the magistrates' court or elect trial by jury, defendants at present are influenced, and indeed advised as such, by the more limited sentencing powers of the magistrates' court.

"If these powers are to become less limited, it is likely that there will in fact be an increase in defendants electing trial by jury, thereby adding to the very problem that the government is trying to alleviate."

Former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab - seen here in the House of Commons has been interviewed on TV

Dominic Raab, justice secretary, said the move will "drive down" the number of cases in crown courts - Credit: PA

He added: "A cardinal principle of sentencing is consistency across the country and I fear that this proposal will increase inconsistency from court to court, which would be a retrograde step."

Dominic Raab, justice secretary, said: "This important measure will provide vital additional capacity to drive down the backlog of cases in the crown courts over the coming years.

"Together with the Nightingale Courts, digital hearings and unlimited sitting days, we will deliver swifter and more effective justice as we build back a stronger, safer and fairer society after the pandemic."