Double magistrates' maximum sentencing powers to reduce Crown Court congestion, say MPs
The maximum sentence magistrates can hand down to criminals should be doubled to 12 months to reduce Crown Court congestion, according to a cross-party group of MPs.
A report from the Justice Committee into the role of the magistracy also reveals that there are 50% fewer of them than a decade ago.
It is urging the Government to “develop and adopt a national strategy” for recruiting more magistrates, after figures for 2018 show 85% of them are over-50, with just 4.2% under the age of 40.
The results of the MPs' inquiry reveal courts are frequently forced to sit with two magistrates on the bench rather than three due to so few being available.
Total numbers were down to 15,000 in 2018, compared to having more than 25,000 in 2012.
The MPs, led by Conservative Bob Neill, agree with the Magistrates Association that the law should be changed so they can continue to sit beyond the current cut-off age of 70 in order to ease the staffing pressures.
Their work follows up an earlier report in 2016 which highlighted a number of similar issues around workload and morale, with the committee expressing disappointment the Department for Justice failed to act.
They write: “The current shortfall in the number of magistrates is as frustrating as it was foreseeable.
“The Government’s failure to undertake the workforce planning exercise the Justice Committee recommended in 2016 has led to the current predicament.
“The new three-year strategy for magistrate recruitment and other initiatives to speed recruitment are welcome, but it is much to be regretted that it has taken a near crisis to prompt the Government into belated action.”
The committee also suggests increasing the current maximum sentence available to magistrates from the current six-month limit, saying it would cut down delays when cases have to move to Crown Court for sentencing .
It said: “We consider that short custodial sentences are less effective than community sentences, but in cases where custody is unavoidable we consider that magistrates should have the power to impose custodial sentences of up to 12 months in cases that would otherwise be sent to the Crown Court for sentencing.
“As part of its review of sentencing, the Government should implement this measure, subject to establishing a positive evidential basis for doing this from a suitable modelling exercise on the effects of such a step.”
Speaking about the report, Mr Neill said: “Magistrates and the criminal justice system as a whole have been badly let down by the failure of the Government to take action and provide appropriate funding to tackle the major issues we flagged in our 2016 report. Many of those issues remain.
“Morale is not improving, despite the Minister’s efforts to reassure us. The court closure programme has made things worse and the shortage of magistrates could have been avoided had the Government adopted our initial recommendation on recruitment.
“The action promised three years ago has failed to materialise, and we again call for an appropriate national strategy.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “The magistracy plays a vital role in our justice system and we are working hard to increase numbers, with more than a thousand new magistrates joining the bench last year.
"We’ve also recently launched a national recruitment process designed to speed up applications and increase these numbers even further.
“We will carefully consider the findings of the report and respond fully in due course.”