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February 11, 2014

Should magistrates sit alone?

Last week, the government published yet another criminal justice bill.  More change is problematic – they keep adding offences to the statute book and courts are finding it hard to keep up.  One change in the new bill is about how judges preside over cases.  It proposes that magistrates should be able to sit alone to preside over low level regulatory cases like motoring and TV licence evasion.  At the moment, at least two magistrates have to preside over these cases in open court.  Magistrates have long complained about how dull this work can be. This was echoed in our recent focus groups with magistrates: “ when you have magistrates with high skill levels in life, often high skills academically and in work – to give them the ‘rump end’ of work can’t sustain their interest…you’re not told when you’re interviewed that you’ll end up doing the crap”.

The clear reason behind the change is financial.  The impact statement suggests the move will save £50 million over ten years; presumably partly through saving on magistrate costs, but this is not spelled out. Nor is the impact on magistrate numbers.  These are already in free fall having declined 22% since 2007.  This new change will be welcomed by many magistrates, but the danger is that with fewer magistrates needed, opportunities to bring in new blood, particularly from under-represented groups will diminish.  All the more reason then to turn to other ways of increasing magistrates’ work, for instance by preventing cases going to the Crown Court, which could be dealt with by magistrates.