My Lords, in moving this regret Motion, I remind the House that I am a sitting magistrate in London. I thank the Magistrates’ Association for the briefing that it has provided, as well as the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee for its work in asking, the Minister, Mike Freer, to flesh out the reasons for this change to magistrates’ sentencing powers.
The instrument that is the subject of this regret Motion reduces the maximum custodial sentence that magistrates’ courts can impose for a single either way offence from 12 to six months, reversing a change put in place in May 2022. The higher sentencing powers had been in place for only 10 months when they were reversed. The May 2022 change did not alter the maximum sentence for any given offence; it simply changed which court might try cases expected to have a maximum sentence of between six and 12 months.
The justification given by the Lord Chief Justice was that, since magistrates’ courts work faster than Crown Courts, the increase sentencing powers had led to an increase in the prison population that needed to be addressed, and that going back to the previous sentencing powers would slow down the increase in the prison population. The Ministry of Justice is also running Operation Safeguard, which is designed to create a vacancy contingency in the male prison estate. Minister Freer has also said that that would be part of a raft of measures to decrease the prison population. We do not yet know what the other measures will be. I want to put on record that the Minister has said that there will be a six-month review on this change in policy.
In his response to the SLSC letter, Minister Freer spoke of downstream pressures on the prison population, namely the recruitment of extra police officers, tougher sentences, more recalls of prisoners on licence, working through the Covid backlog and the Criminal Bar Association’s strike. All these factors have contributed to the growth in the prison population—about 4,000 prisoners in the past year. We do not know how that figure is broken down between these various pressures. In my view, it is unlikely that the change in sentencing powers has played a significant part in the overall increase.
I shall go through the objections to and the questions raised by this change in sentencing powers, first made by the SLSC and then by the Magistrates’ Association. First, when considering the numbers in custody and on bail, those waiting for their trial in custody will have to wait longer because of the far longer backlog in the Crown Courts. When Mr Freer, the Minister, was asked about the increased risk of reoffending of those who are on bail to Crown Courts, he said there was no available data. The SLSC commented that this was indeed a relevant factor and should have been assessed as part of the policy-making process.
On the costs of the two systems, Mr Freer asserted that the change does not give rise to any direct financial pressure because it does not introduce any new demand into the system but simply transfers some cases to the Crown Court. The SLSC was unimpressed by that point and pointed out that Crown Courts take longer to hear cases, involve juries and are very likely to be more expensive.
An analysis of the May 2022 change was promised by the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, on Report of the Judicial Review and Courts Bill. The SLSC pointed out that no data had been published and called on the Ministry of Justice to complete and publish its review so that a more informed decision could be taken when considering the effect of changing maximum sentencing powers in magistrates’ courts. It also inquired whether more research could be done to see whether sentence lengths vary between similar cases in magistrates’ courts and Crown Courts.
In conclusion, the SLSC said that using the maximum sentence available to magistrates’ courts as a sort of valve that could be opened and closed in response to wider developments that affected the prison population was not an optimum way of making policy, as it failed to consider other potentially important factors. The SLSC said that maximum sentences in magistrates’ courts should be determined by the overall outcomes for society and should be evidence-based, and it believed that this was not the case with the Government’s decision.
Turning to the Magistrates’ Association, I can do no better than refer to what Mark Beattie, the current chairman of the association, has said: “The reaction of magistrates has been very negative. Magistrates each spent three hours completing a mandatory training pack, totalling over 30,000 hours of our own time on our own equipment. Chairs of training committees personally chased up people who had not done the training so they could complete the training before they sat in court. These chairs are feeling particularly aggrieved, both because of the many extra hours they have spent at this task and because they fear that this sudden reversal will have damaged their ability to persuade people the next time they ask them to undertake extra training. They feel personally undermined, and as this is an essential statutory role, it is especially bad if they feel that their ability to perform their duties has been impacted. ‘Why do the training if the rules can be changed so easily?’ is a message that we are hearing. We know, because we have been told, that magistrates are resigning over this matter, although we don’t know the numbers or the locations.”
Of course magistrates will work conscientiously to deal with the cases put in front of them and fulfil the judicial oath they have all taken. However, it is incumbent on the Government, through the Ministry of Justice, to ensure that the decisions taken are properly evidenced-based and that court users can understand the rationale behind those decisions.
I would be grateful if the Minister could give any indication of a timetable for a review of the current sentencing arrangements, and whether that review will take into account the additional factors highlighted by the SLSC and the Magistrates’ Association. I beg to move.