Magistrates are to be given powers to jail criminals for up to a year in a bid to clear backlogs in the biggest change to the system in 140 years.
Dominic Raab, the Justice Secretary, announced the jail terms that magistrates can impose will double from the current maximum of six months, enabling them to try more serious offences of assault, burglary, theft and fraud.
In an exclusive article for The Telegraph , he said the change would increase the number of cases handled by magistrates, freeing up judges to concentrate on major trials and speeding up justice by reducing their backlogs.
Hailing magistrates, who are volunteer laypeople, as the "unsung heroes" and "linchpins" of the justice system, Mr Raab said he believed they could "fairly and effectively" try more serious cases.
"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. I am confident they can play an even greater role in bringing down the backlog in the Crown Court, by taking on more cases themselves," he said.
"It forms part of our wider strategy to get court backlogs down as quickly as possible, increase the prosecution rate of offenders and give victims swifter justice."
Leading barristers, however, warned it would lead to more people being jailed – piling pressure on overcrowded prisons, more appeals and more defendants being tempted to "take their chances with a jury" rather than a panel of three magistrates.
The move comes as Crown Court backlogs have grown to nearly 60,000, from 40,000 before the pandemic, forcing victims to wait more than 600 days to get justice after a crime, a rise of 50 per cent. This is despite the Government investing £125million to tackle the delays.
By contrast , magistrates have already slashed their backlog of cases from 422,000 at the peak of the pandemic to 350,000, according to the latest Ministry of Justice figures.
The reform will be introduced by March to ensure all magistrates have the required training. It will be the first change to the sentencing limit since the Summary Jurisdiction Act of 1879 restricted magistrates to a maximum of six months imprisonment "with or without labour".
It will only apply to so-called "either-way" offences that can be dealt with by magistrates or Crown Courts. It excludes "indictable" offences such as murder, manslaughter or rape that have to go to the Crown Court and "summary" offences, largely motoring, that are reserved only for magistrates.
Defendants will still be able to opt to have any "either-way" case heard by a jury if they wish, but Mr Raab estimated the change could still save 1,700 sitting days in Crown Courts by enabling 500 jury trials to be switched to magistrates.
'A betrayal of victims of crime'
Jo Sidhu, QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), claimed it would not only deny some defendants a jury trial as magistrates decided to hold onto cases they might otherwise have passed to Crown Courts but also generate more appeals as lawyers challenged magistrates' legal judgment.
"Fiddling with magistrates' sentencing powers is a betrayal of victims of crime. This is a cynical means of depriving those accused of serious crime from being judged by their peers in our long-established jury system," he said.
"Keeping back more cases in the magistrates will, in any event, only trigger more appeals to the Crown Court, adding to the long list of cases and divert criminal advocates from tackling the existing pile-up of trials."
The CBA will announce on Tuesday the results of a survey of its 2,500 members on possible industrial action over pay, amid claims that the shortage of criminal barristers is contributing to delays.
The Bar Council claimed magistrates would be more likely to jail offenders , increasing the prison population, as well as sparking more appeals.
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 MoJ 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 for 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."
'Very able, competent magistrates'
Beverley Higgs, chair of the Magistrates' Association said Crown Court backlogs were getting bigger and becoming entrenched, having been worsened by the pandemic. "We are concerned with the reputation of the whole justice system because it affects everybody," she said.
"Because of the impact on victims, complainants and witnesses of how long they have to wait and possibly be re-victimised by reliving the offences, we could see nothing but benefit from shortening the Crown Court list by very able, competent magistrates taking it up," she said.
Mr Raab will activate a clause in Tony Blair's 2003 Criminal Justice Act to enact the change – Labour never went ahead with the plan – but he will also put an amendment into his Judicial Review Bill creating an "off-switch" to cancel the change if there are problems.
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