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June 12, 2016

Should the number of magistrates be more than halved?

Shailesh Vara, the minister for courts, told the Justice Committee last Tuesday that the Ministry of Justice predicts the number of magistrates to go down to 12,000 by 2022.  This is a huge change. In 2009, there were over 29,000 lay magistrates.  So that would mean a reduction of nearly 60% in 13 years – a huge reduction in such an important civic institution, and unprecedented in comparison with other parts of the judiciary.  The minister did not explain why the numbers would be so reduced, but did imply that this was the inevitable result of current trends.

I suppose this huge reduction will happen if numbers of cases in magistrates courts continue to fall, if magistrates are prevented from presiding over certain types of hearing (fitness to plead, bad character applications, serious sex cases in the youth court etc), if district judge numbers remain stable, and if magistrates sit the same number of days as they do now. But this reduction would be disastrous for diversity, and for lay participation in the justice system.  Diversity would suffer because recruitment would hardly happen, leaving existing magistrates getting older.

I was left wondering whether the government wanted numbers to fall to 12,000 or not?  There are many ways of avoiding this – reducing the maximum number of days each JP can sit, mandating (apart from in exceptional circumstances) that magistrates should sit in benches of three, not two, allowing magistrates to do prison adjudications etc.  But the option the government seems to be taking most seriously is to increase the sentencing powers of magistrates.

Currently magistrates can sentence people to prison for one offence for up to six months.  The government is considering extending that to twelve months.  This would give magistrates more work (since they could deal with more serious crimes) and relieve delays in the Crown Court.  But there is a risk that sentences from magistrates’ court may be more punitive than those from the Crown Court, and people may be denied the choice of jury trial. Both the Prison Reform Trust and the Howard League advocated to the committee that magistrates’ sentencing powers should be reduced (so that they could not imprison) while Transform Justice and the Criminal Justice Alliance advocated keeping the status quo.  Sentence inflation is clearly a concern of the department since the minister said “in 2014, 40% of the cases that were sent from the magistrates court to the Crown court for sentencing, because the magistrates took the view that they did not have sufficient sentencing powers, received sentences that the magistrates could have imposed. That gives an indication that there may be a tendency to give more custodial sentences in the magistrates’ court than would otherwise be the case”. The minister also admitted that the department had not modelled the effect of increasing magistrates’ sentencing powers. This is surprising, given that the government and judiciary appear to be seriously considering the change.

I am still not clear what the government thinks about the magistracy being more than halved, and whether they have a secret strategy to prevent it. The Justice Committee will soon be publishing their recommendations on the future role of the magistracy.  I only hope the Committee will be radical, and counter the current trend of an ever shrinking magistracy.