Magistrates will soon be given new powers to increase the maximum prison sentences that they can hand down to a whole year.
The government hopes that doubling the current maximum jail time of six months will help clear the backlog of cases at crown courts.
Magistrate judges will now be able to try more people suspected of so-called “either way” offences, such as fraud, burglary, assault and theft.
These cases can usually be dealt with by either magistrates’ or crown courts but, as magistrates have only been able to sentence someone to up to six months, more serious cases that call for longer prison time have been referred to the crown courts for sentencing.
The increase to magistrates’ powers – expected to come into force over the coming months – is the biggest change to the justice system in 140 years, since the Summary Jurisdiction Act of 1879 first limited their powers to sentence an offender to a maximum of six months.
Defendants will still have the right to demand an “either way” case to be heard by a jury, but justice secretary Dominic Raab said the change could still allow about 500 more cases to be heard by magistrates, and that this would free up about 1,700 sitting days in crown courts a year.
Crown court backlogs have risen – by about 20,000 cases during the pandemic – to nearly 60,000 cases.
Victims of serious offences have had to wait almost two years for justice after a crime is reported, which represents a 50 per cent longer delay, according to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).
Writing in Tuesday’s edition of the Telegraph, Mr Raab said the move will allow crown court judges to focus on cases involving allegations of more serious crimes.
He said that magistrates – who are volunteer members of the public – are “unsung heroes” and “linchpins” of the justice system, who he is “confident” will be able to help their crown court counterparts by taking on more serious cases “fairly and effectively”.
Mr Raab added: “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.”
He also said that the change to sentencing powers is part of a package of measures to “deliver swifter and more effective justice” that includes the use of 10 temporary Nightingale Courts, digital hearings and unlimited sitting days.
The plan has been met with support from the Magistrates’ Association, which has campaigned for sentencing powers to be extended.
National chair Bev Higgs said the group is “delighted”, adding: “I know our members and colleagues will take up this new level of responsibility with pride, professionalism, and integrity and will – as always – strive to deliver the highest quality of justice in their courts.”
But critics warned the plan to increase magistrates’ sentencing powers could be counter-productive and actually add to the backlog.
Alex Cunningham, Labour’s shadow courts and sentencing minister, branded the move a “sticking plaster” solution.
He added: “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, said: “We believe that these changes will simply increase the prison population and put further pressure on the Ministry of Justice budget. This will mean less money available to keep the courts running.
“It is also quite possible that the changes may prompt more defendants to elect trial in the crown court, increasing the trial backlog.
“This would damage the interests of complainants and victims and be counterproductive to everything we are trying to achieve to deliver timely and fair justice.”
Jo Sidhu QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, described the plan as “distraction politics at its worst”.
He claimed that “fiddling with magistrates’ sentencing powers is a betrayal of victims of crime” and warned that the move may trigger more appeals of cases to the crown court and only add to the backlog.
Stuart Matthews, partner at criminal defence firm Reeds Solicitors, warned people to “be afraid” as he described magistrates as largely “untrained volunteers, many of whom do not understand even the most basic of legal principles”.
Magistrates are to be offered training provided by the Judicial College to make sure the powers are used “consistently and appropriately,” the government said.
An amendment to the Judicial Review and Courts Bill will mean the government will have powers to reverse the change if needed.