Magistrates are set to be given more sentencing powers in an effort to tackle the pile-up of cases waiting to be dealt with by criminal courts across England and Wales.
But critics warned the plan could have the opposite effect and add to the backlog, while branding it a “sticking plaster” solution.
Ministry of Justice data shows there were 1,448 outstanding cases at Preston Crown Court at the end of September last year.
That was a slight decrease from 1,458 at the end of June, but up from 1,302 at the same point in 2020.
Uncompleted case numbers are 73% higher than they were prior to the coronavirus pandemic – in September 2019, there were 835 cases outstanding at Preston Crown Court.
Across England and Wales, 59,900 cases were waiting to be dealt with by crown courts at the end of September – a slight dip of 1% compared to June, but a 17% increase from 51,280 in September 2020.
Nearly a quarter of cases have been outstanding for a year or more.
Under plans announced by Justice Secretary Dominic Raab, the maximum sentence magistrates can hand out will be doubled to a year.
Currently, crimes warranting a jail term of more than six months are automatically sent to a crown court for sentencing.
Keeping more cases in magistrates’ courts, which have been “less severely affected” by Covid, means crown courts can better focus their resources on tackling the backlog, according to the MoJ.
Mr Raab said: “This important measure will provide vital additional capacity to drive down the backlog of cases in the crown courts over the coming years."
But Alex Cunningham, Labour’s shadow courts and sentencing minister, described the move as “another sticking plaster” solution, adding: “Ministers must give assurances that greater powers for magistrates won’t inflict even more burden on crown courts – with increased numbers of appeals overloading a diminishing number of criminal advocates left in the system.”
Mark Fenhalls QC, chairman of the Bar Council, warned the changes could increase the prison population and put further pressure on the MoJ budget.
Expected to come into force in the coming months, the changes will only apply to ‘either-way’ offences which can be dealt with by magistrates or crown courts. It will mean defendants can still opt to have their case heard by a jury in a crown court.
Bev Higgs, national chairman of the Magistrates’ Association which has campaigned for sentencing powers to be extended, said the organisation was “delighted” with the announcement, adding: “It is absolutely the right time to re-align where cases are heard to ensure a safe, effective, and efficient justice system."
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