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September 1, 2013

Intriguing new interest in magistrates

Why has this government suddenly focused a spotlight on magistrates and their powers?  No-one seems to know.  But its a positive development given that many magistrates feel neglected and under-valued.  In the midst of the summer holiday MoJ/Home Office Minister Damian Green has addressed a series of meetings with magistrates.  The main questions are about the work of magistrates in court and their involvement in the community.  He is asking magistrates for their views.  Magistrates’ court work has been reducing radically in recent years, partly because recorded crime is going down, partly because the police are using more out of court disposals.  The latter development is particularly unpopular with magistrates, though Damian Green made no promises to reverse the trend.  Instead his focus is on more serious cases.  The maximum custodial sentence a magistrate can impose is six months, and they have long lobbied to get greater powers.  Again nothing was promised, but the Minister did point out that a huge number of cases that could be dealt with by magistrates are even now being sent up to the Crown Court for trial and/or sentence.  He wants magistrates to retain more of these serious cases, thus saving money (Crown Courts are more expensive) and giving magistrates more interesting work. This is a good idea, as long as a close idea is kept on magistrates’ (and district judges) sentences – some data suggests they tend to sentence more harshly than crown courts.