THE role of magistrates could be dramatically re-shaped in the coming years after Justice Minister Damian Green announced plans to change the types of cases they take on.
In a speech this week, Mr Green called for more work to be done to ensure the right cases are brought before magistrates, saying that 4,000 people sent to crown court each year to be sentenced could have been dealt with in the lower courts.
He is planning a wider overhaul of the criminal justice system, which includes unclogging magistrates’ courts by dealing with simple road traffic offences out of the traditional process, as well as tackling re-offending rates with planned new powers for magistrates.
He said: “Magistrates are truly the cornerstone of our justice system; not only that, they are a model of what a good citizen should be.
“They volunteer to give their skills, expertise and time for the good of others, for nothing. We are lucky to have them, and we should be proud of them.”
“However, four out of ten defendants sent to the crown court for sentencing received custodial sentences that could have been handled in the magistrates’ court. We need to look at why this is happening and if we need to do more to make the best use of magistrates.
“We need to keep the right cases in the right court if we are to have a modern justice system in a fair society.”
Other proposals include new powers for magistrates to impose a “short, sharp” two week return to custody for any offender who breaches their new supervision period, following a sentence of less than 12 months in prison.
There are around 23,500 magistrates in England and Wales, who sit across adult, youth and family courts. They have the power to sentence criminals to up to six months in prison and issue fines of up to £5,000.
Last year around 9,800 defendants were convicted by magistrates then committed to crown court for custodial sentences.
But 40 per cent of those received up to six months in prison, meaning they could have been dealt with in magistrates’ courts, where the cost of a typical sitting day is around £1,400 a day, compared with £2,150 in the crown court.
Similarly, around 3,200 defendants under the age of 18 were also committed to the crown court for trial in 2012.
This is despite the fact the youth court, which was set up specifically to deal with children involved in criminal proceedings, has the power to impose a detention and training order, served half in custody, half in the community, up to a maximum of 24 months.