Magistrate Courts will be granted powers to jail offenders for a year to clear case backlog

Under plans announced by Justice Secretary Dominic Raab, the maximum 6-month prison sentence that can currently be handed out by Magistrates is to be doubled to a year – freeing up an estimated 2,000 extra days of Crown Court time annually.

Last November Mr Raab admitted to Sky News that he “couldn’t say with precision” when the backlog of 60,000 plus crown court cases in England and Wales could return to pre-pandemic levels.

The number of outstanding cases has so far dropped by around 70,000 in the Magistrates’ Court since its peak in July 2020, while the caseload in Crown Court is starting to come down.

The government says today’s move will increasingly allow the serious cases heard by magistrates – such as fraud, theft and assault – to be sentenced by them too. At present, any crimes warranting a jail term of more than 6 months must be sent to Crown Court where judges determine the appropriate sentence.

Deputy Prime Minister, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Dominic Raab said:

“This important measure will provide vital additional capacity to drive down the backlog of cases in the Crown Courts over the coming years.

“Together with the Nightingale Courts, digital hearings and unlimited sitting days, we will deliver swifter and more effective justice as we build back a stronger, safer and fairer society after the pandemic.”

These plans build on the significant action taken since the start of the pandemic to drive court recovery. This includes a quarter of a billion pounds investment to support recovery in the courts in the last financial year – plus over £50 million for victims and support services.

Spending on publicly funded criminal legal defence declined by 35% in real terms from 2010 to 2020, according to the House of Commons library.

The government has also set up Nightingale Courtrooms across the country to increase capacity and ensure more trials can be heard – with a commitment to extend 32 Crown court rooms that deal with criminal trials until the end of March 2022.

Two state-of-the-art ‘super courtrooms’ which can accommodate up to 12 defendants have also been installed, alongside 3,265 Cloud Video Platform virtual court rooms across all jurisdictions. These currently hold around 13,600 hearings per week using audio and/or video hearings.

There is also no limit on the number of sitting days the Crown Court can sit this year.