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Magistrates Court Sentencing Powers

Monday, May-27, 2024

Magistrates Court Sentencing Powers

Brian Nuttney

It has recently been announced that magistrates will have their sentencing powers increased from six months to 12 months after a backlog of around 60,000 cases built up at Crown Courts as a result of the Covid lockdowns.

So is this a sensible measure to ease the strain on the higher courts or a case of giving non-legally qualified “volunteer” magistrates too much power?

To answer this question, it is important to firstly have an understanding of how the court system works and the current powers of the magistrates.

The vast majority of cases that magistrates deal with are classed as summary only such as minor road traffic matters, low-level assaults and Public Order Act offences. In these cases, the punishments they can hand out will still be bound by limits set down in legislation meaning only a maximum custodial sentence of six months could be imposed. The change will not affect these cases.

Also, while all offences start life in the Magistrates Court, the most serious offences, such as rape and murder, are classed as indictable only and are immediately transferred to the Crown Court to be dealt with.  These cases will also remain unaffected.

Therefore, the change will actually impact on a fairly limited number of cases, termed either-way offences. These are offences such as burglary, theft and more serious assaults that can be dealt with either by the Magistrates Court or Crown Court.

In burglary, for example, potential punishments can range from a community order all the way up to several years in prison, depending on how serious the offence is.

At present, if the magistrates thought a particular case of burglary was so serious that their sentencing powers of six months would not be enough, they would send it to Crown Court.

However, under the new rules, they could retain such a case if the likely sentence was more than six months but no greater than 12 months.

It should be noted that when magistrates are asked to deal with two either-way offences at the same time, then they already have the power to pass a sentence of up to 12 months in prison.

Also, in cases of either-way offences, defendants always have the right to elect to have their case heard before a jury in the Crown Court, and some will choose this option regardless of what the magistrates think.

It therefore can be seen that this change will affect a relatively small number of cases coming before the magistrates. This is particularly the case given recent guidance that has been provided to the magistrates that they should seek to deal with as many cases as possible including straightforward trials, and, at the end of the trial if they feel their sentencing powers are insufficient, then to send the case to the Crown Court for sentencing.

Further criticism of the new powers is that defendants who are dealt with in the Magistrates Court have a direct right of appeal to the Crown Court. This means that if defendants are unhappy with their sentence, they can apply to the Crown Court for their sentence to be re-heard by a legally qualified judge and two lay magistrates. This means that unless the sentencing powers are exercised proportionately, it could in fact increase the workload of the Crown Court.

What is clear is that it is now more important than ever that if you are charged or summoned to appear before the magistrates, you seek representation at the earliest opportunity to take advice not just about the charges that you face, but the sentencing powers that are available.

At McCormicks Solicitors, we represent defendants in Magistrates Courts across North Yorkshire and the UK and will always provide clear advice regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the case against you and likely sentence you could receive.

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