Give 10,000 new magistrates expanded powers in ‘Police Courts’

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Friday, 21 February 2014

Synopsis

  • Recruit ‘new generation’ of JPs to hear cases on-the-spot and oversee police cautions regime
  • Report finds greater number of magistrate courts than A&E departments

Magistrates should dispense justice inside police stations at peak times – including evenings and weekends – and be put in charge of the administration of out-of-court disposals, as part of a radical drive to speed up the operation of the criminal justice system.

A new Policy Exchange report, Future Courts, argues that locating magistrates in police stations would deliver much swifter justice, dramatically reducing the time it takes to punish criminals. There is currently a two month delay from the time an offender is charged by the police to the sentence being handed down in a magistrates’ court. The report says that this wasted time weakens the power of punishments and means that the system does little to change the behaviour of offenders.

Reforming summary justice so that magistrates hear cases on-the-spot in police stations would also allow them to oversee or directly administer out-of-court disposals such as simple cautions. There has been considerable public concern about the police’s use of these disposals, which now account for 20% of all criminal cases, including their use in response to very serious offences such as rape. The report calls for a massive expansion in the size of the magistracy to help meet the requirements of these expanded roles. Currently there are 23,000 magistrates and they preside over 90% of all criminal cases in England and Wales, although applications to join the magistracy have dramatically decreased in recent years.

The paper highlights the huge financial pressures faced by Her Majesty’s Court and Tribunals Service, which must cut its budget by 37.8% between 2012 and 2016. It says that the Ministry of Justice will inevitably focus on reducing the size of the court estate to meet this challenge. With 230 magistrates’ courts in England and Wales, compared to just 180 NHS Accident and Emergency Departments, the paper concludes that there is significant scope to re-alter the size of the estate, but that the government must take concrete steps to protect the local justice infrastructure and the functioning of the lay magistracy, which has existed for over 650 years.

The report recommends:

  • The recruitment of 10,000 new magistrates, taking overall numbers to 33,000: They would sit in police stations and other community buildings, oversee out-of-court disposals, review offenders’ sentences on an on-going basis, and spend a third of their volunteering time undertaking community engagement work.
  • A more diverse magistracy: courts sitting during evenings and weekends will encourage younger, professional people to apply, but more action is needed. Instead of automatic retirement at 70, a new ‘tenure period’ for magistrates of 10 years should be implemented, creating greater turnover – and polices should be enacted to specifically target younger and more ethnically diverse recruits.
  • Greater court innovation: The Ministry of Justice, the Judicial College and the Magistrates’ Association should devise a new training package for 500 or so ‘problem solving’ magistrates and judges, specialising in dealing with people with drug and alcohol addiction.
  • The creation of new ‘Justice Hubs’: Court buildings currently house an average of six courtrooms. As the overall footprint of the court estate is reduced, the report recommends the creation of much larger courthouses, containing around 50 courtrooms. Newly-built or converted ‘Justice Hubs’, located to serve major population areas and co-located with other justice agencies, would accommodate different criminal courts (e.g. magistrates and Crown Courts), civil courts and tribunals under the same roof, as well as housing the full range of justice services and custody facilities.

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