It’s time to empower magistrates to clear the backlog in our courts

This Government is determined to deliver swifter justice, punish criminals and stand up for victims. So, I am strengthening the powers of our magistrates’ courts to deal with criminal cases, by increasing their sentencing powers from six to 12 months for a single offence.

Covid-19 has created a backlog in the courts, in particular the Crown Courts where social distancing rules disrupted jury trials. The backlog in Crown Courts is starting to come down, and magistrates have shown outstanding commitment to bring the backlog in the magistrates’ courts down by around 70,000 from its peak in July 2020.

In many ways, magistrates are the unsung heroes of our justice system. They may be volunteers, but they are linchpins of the criminal justice system and serve as the starting point for all criminal cases.

While the most serious cases go on to Crown Courts, magistrates are dedicated, well-trained and supported with legal advice, allowing them to deal with a range of cases themselves – from traffic offences to burglary.

I am confident that they can play an even greater role in bringing down the backlog in the Crown Courts, by taking on more cases themselves. As things stand, magistrates must send any crimes warranting a jail term of more than six months – such as fraud, theft and assault – to the Crown Court for sentencing. I believe that they can fairly and effectively deal with many of these cases.

So, we’re going to empower magistrates by raising their sentencing powers up to a maximum prison term of one year. That will allow us to bring criminals to justice more quickly. And it will free up around 1,700 Crown Court sitting days a year – the equivalent of an extra 500 jury trials – helping to relieve some of the strain on the Crown Courts.

It’s not just a question of increasing magistrates’ sentencing powers. We are investing more than £1million in digital technology, and encouraging a broader range of people to apply to become magistrates – to support this reform and equip the magistrates’ courts for the task at hand.

It forms part of our wider strategy to get court backlogs down as quickly as possible, increase the prosecution rate of offenders and give victims swifter justice. We have invested £250million in court recovery in the last financial year, opened temporary Nightingale Courts to increase court capacity, lifted the limit on court sitting days and deployed Cloud Video Platform courtrooms for more virtual hearings – all to boost our recovery from the pandemic.

Under our crime-fighting plans, this Conservative Government is halfway through recruiting 20,000 more police, and we’ve increased the amount of time serious criminals spend in prison – both reforms Labour voted against. Our funding for victims is three times the level under Labour, and I am consulting on a new law to give greater voice to victims across the criminal justice system. 

Strengthening the role of our magistrates and reducing the backlog in the Crown Courts is another critical component of that plan – as we build back a stronger and fairer society after the pandemic.

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