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House of Lords Hansard
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07 July 2016
Volume 773

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the Magistrates’ Association’s request for an increase in the maximum penalty magistrates can impose from six to 12 months.

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My Lords, we are committed to ensuring that the magistracy remains at the centre of our justice system. We are actively considering the possibility of increasing the sentencing powers for magistrates as one way in which we can make sure that this is the case.

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My Lords, that is indeed good news because in the Magistrates’ Association there is a well-trained workforce ready and able to take on that extra responsibility. That would certainly help with delays in the senior courts. Delays are the bugbear of any court, so how should courts assess a situation in which a defendant pleads not guilty in the magistrates’ court, the case is prepared on that basis and yet on the first day of the Crown Court appearance, as soon he can, he changes his plea to guilty? This is extremely expensive for the public purse and, more importantly, causes great distress to victims and other people involved in those cases.

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My noble friend makes an important point and, with her experience of the magistracy, a pertinent one. We very much respect the contribution that magistrates make to our criminal justice system. Some 90% of criminal cases in the justice system are dealt with by magistrates. As to her specific point, defendants are always encouraged to plead guilty— where appropriate, of course—at the earliest possible opportunity, and judges and magistrates very much bear in mind that, although there is a temptation for brinkmanship, the best way to show mitigation and reduce your sentence is to plead guilty at an early stage and save all the costs that my noble friend referred to.

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My Lords, on 23 December, the Ministry of Justice declined a freedom of information request on the modelling of proposals to increase the sentencing powers of magistrates, but admitted that it had carried out such modelling. On 7 June, the Minister, Mr Vara, told the Justice Select Committee that he was not aware of any such modelling. Will the Government now disclose what assessment has been made of the impact on prison numbers of the proposed changes? If they proceed with the proposal, when will they review the effect of that change?

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The question of appropriate sentencing powers is a difficult one. It goes back to 1952, when the magistrates were first given their powers. There are different views on whether it is appropriate to increase the sentencing powers. For example, the Prison Reform Trust and the Howard League think there ought to be a decrease in sentencing powers. There is a great deal of thought being carried out on this. I am not currently aware of any modelling and I cannot go beyond the answer given, but I will take that back to the department and bear in mind the question posed by the noble Lord.

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My Lords, this change has been on the statute book since 2003. The Magistrates’ Association argues strongly that retaining more cases in the magistrates’ court and reducing the number of cases committed to the Crown Court for sentence would cut delays, as the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, said, save some £40 million and, importantly, make justice more local. Do the Government see any persuasive arguments against now implementing the change?

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The noble Lord is right; it was as long ago as 2003 that this potential increase in sentence was statutorily allowed. A number of factors have been taken into account by successive Governments. He makes an important point about cost savings. He is quite right; it is, of course, much cheaper to use magistrates than go to the Crown Court and, if they have appropriate powers, it is more likely that magistrates will deal with the matter. We have to bear in mind—I think the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, directed his question towards this matter—the possible effect on the prison population and how magistrates will feel able, or want, to use any increase in powers. It is a difficult question.

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My Lords, my noble friend mentioned the incredibly high level of training and expertise that magistrates have. When looking at this Question in relation to today’s first Question, of course the overwhelming majority of motoring offences are also dealt with in the magistrates’ court. On training, will my noble friend the Minister please outline what plans the Government have to ensure that when driverless cars become a reality on our roads, with the potentially complex issues to do with the programming of those cars in the eventuality of an accident, we will still have the expertise in the magistrates’ courts to ensure that the overwhelming majority of such cases are tried in those courts?

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My noble friend makes a good point. The senior presiding judge and HMCTS review the needs of the magistrates’ courts annually, including training for district judges and magistrates. All interested parties are consulted such as local Bench chairmen and local branches of the Magistrates’ Association. The training would include any new potential offences or situations identified through various routes. Clearly, they should include a new concept such as that to which my noble friend refers.

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Can the Minister confirm that people who receive short custodial sentences of, say, up to 12 months are on the whole least likely to benefit from any of the educational or other potentially rehabilitative resources that are available in the prison system in a very limited way? Therefore, going back to the question from my noble friend Lord Beecham, is it at all useful to run the risk that the number of such sentences will increase?

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The noble Baroness puts her finger on one of the factors which makes it very difficult to decide this quite long-standing issue. Of course, she is right that short sentences are difficult in terms of management for the purposes of rehabilitation, giving training, purposeful activity and the like. Prison governors, who will be given more autonomy, will find it difficult to get any meaningful interaction with a prisoner if the latter is there for a short time. However, it is a matter for magistrates what they think the appropriate sentence for a particular offence is.

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My Lords, I am sure many noble Lords will share my concern about the prevalence of some magistrates permitting criminals to take a break from their tags to go on pre-booked holidays, stag weekends or other social occasions outside the limitations of their curfews. On 25 November last year in the other place, when addressing a Question on this matter, the Prime Minister said:

“A punishment is a punishment, a tag is a tag”.—[Official Report, Commons, 25/11/15; col. 1355.]

Can the Minister update the House on recent talks with the Magistrates’ Association to help close this loophole?

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I am aware of some of the cases to which my noble friend refers. Of course, we as government cannot interfere with the discretion of judges and magistrates in how they sentence and implement sentences. Every single case must be considered individually. Some of those decisions seem somewhat surprising on the face of it. The Magistrates’ Association and all interested bodies will no doubt have that very much in mind in looking forward.