Should Magistrates be Offered Far Harsher Sentencing Powers?
Magistrates’ courts are one of the oldest judicial institutions in our country. The history of magistrates’ and community courts goes back a long way, and today, magistrates’ courts remain an important part of the British justice system. Just recently, magistrates sentencing powers were debated in Parliament, amid overall proposed reforms of the entire justice system.
Magistrates are volunteers who do not receive a salary for their work. They are required to be within the prescribed age limits, to have a sense of justice and peace, and a general awareness of current issues. They are not required to be legally qualified judges, or to have any prior legal training. Once selected, magistrates receive training on how to carry out their magisterial duties in court.
As far as criminal cases go, magistrates’ courts currently handle summary hearings for minor crimes – including but not limited to shoplifting, drunk driving, disorderly behaviour, minor assault charges, and more serious crimes like burglary and drugs etc. Depending on the nature of the crime and other relevant information, magistrates who generally hear cases in groups of three, consult and arrive at the proper sentence, which usually depends on sentencing guidelines.
Currently magistrates have the power to decide if an offender should be kept in a prison cell or in custody or be granted bail. It becomes necessary to decide this if another hearing is required to reach a decision, or if the case needs to be passed on to a higher court. A magistrates’ court usually passes on serious cases involving rape, assault, robbery etc. to crown courts.
Magistrates have the power to give a prison sentence, order community service, or impose a fine, or a combination of all. At the moment, the maximum prison sentence magistrates can give is 6 months for a single offence and 12 months for more than one offence. The maximum fine that magistrates can impose is £5000, and there is no limit on how many hours of community service work a magistrates’ court can sentence.
While these sentences can prove effective in deterring people from committing a crime again, it is not always the case. Some offenders may go on repeating a crime despite being sentenced and may need harsher punishment. Sometimes, more severe sentences may be required, but magistrates may be unable to do anything due to the limitations imposed upon them.
An argument in favour of increasing the sentencing power of magistrates is that they will be able to dispense justice at the local level expediently and more effectively. Having more sentencing powers will mean having to pass on less cases to higher courts, which will reduce the time taken to deal with certain cases. Of course, this will also significantly reduce the amount of resources required to pass the case to a higher court, which ultimately translates into financial savings. Finally, giving more sentencing powers to magistrates’ courts may help reduce the overall level of crime, in particular among nuisance repeat offenders.
What do you think?