Minor crimes could bypass magistrates

Plans announced yesterday by Justice Minister Damien Green, could see shoplifting and some minor crimes dealt with by magistrates sitting in an office rather than a court.

In a wide-ranging speech, Mr Green praised the extremely valuable role that magistrates play in delivering justice locally and announced that that the Government will be working with magistrates to maximise their responsibilities and modernise their role.

He commented that:

…. four out of ten defendants sent to the crown court for sentencing received custodial sentences that could have been handed in the magistrates’ court – we need to look at why this is happening and if we need to do more to make the best use of magistrates. We need to keep the right cases in the right court if we are to have a modern justice system in a fair society.”

The Government’s plans come as part of a wider reform to the criminal justice system and would look at:

  • Ensuring maximum use is made of the skills and capabilities of magistrates so they are routinely dealing with serious and complex cases, within their powers, rather than committing them to the Crown Court for sentencing.
  • Unclogging magistrates’ courts, for example, by dealing with the 500,000 or so simple road traffic offences out of the traditional process, freeing-up time for magistrates in courtrooms to deal with more serious offences.
  • Tackling stubbornly high reoffending rates with proposed new powers for magistrates to impose a ‘short sharp’ two week return to custody for any offender who breaches their new supervision period, following a sentence of less than 12 months in prison. This was introduced in the Offender Rehabilitation Bill, currently before Parliament.
  • Exploring new roles for magistrates in cutting crime locally, for example by scrutinising the police’s use of out of court disposals (such as cautions), and engaging with the local community through initiatives such as ‘Magistrates in the Community’ and ‘National Mock Trial Competition’.

Magistrates were recently issued with guidance by the Senior Presiding Judge, Lord Justice Gross, as to how to play a wider role in scrutinising out of court disposals –


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