Calling for reform of the magistrates court

Yesterday, I called for immediate reform of the Magistrates court system. This follows the House of Commons Justice Select Committee, which I am a member of, report into the role of the Magistracy and its workings.

Established over 650 years ago, the magistracy is recognised as an integral part of the judiciary of England and Wales. There are just over 17,000 magistrates, all of whom are unpaid volunteers. They deal with over 90% of criminal cases and a substantial proportion of non-criminal work including family law cases. Traditionally, the linked principles of ‘local justice’ and ‘justice by one’s peers’ have underpinned the role of the magistracy, and for many magistrates these principles remain important today.

Despite its central place within the criminal justice system, the role of the magistracy has not been reviewed for many years. The Committee’s inquiry considered: the role of the magistracy; whether any changes should be made to magistrates’ powers and responsibilities, including sentencing powers; the impact of court closures; and recruitment, training and support.

The Committee’s main recommendations include:

• The MoJ should ensure that at least 90% of users can reach the nearest magistrates’ court venue by public transport within one hour, and should urgently explore low cost, practical solutions to potential security risks in alternative court venues lacking a secure dock. Full access to physical courts should be maintained until facilities such as video links are fully operational.
• The magistracy is in desperate need for more Magistrates and more must be done to recruit the numbers needed.
• There shouldn’t be an age barrier of 70 for Magistrates. Often we are losing accomplished magistrates due to nothing but age. Their position should be based on competence not age.
• Sentencing powers should be extended for the Magistracy. They should be able to pass sentences of up to 12 months, instead of the current 6 months.

In February of this year it was confirmed that Prestatyn Magistrates Court would close. This follows the closure of Flint Magistrates Court. These two closures will mean that people living in Delyn are having the travel for a considerable time to reach a court.

We are seeing a crisis in the numbers of magistrates. Currently there are a total of 17,552 magistrates compared to around 30,000 in 2006. This drastic fall has ensured that the justice system is slowed down and people are not getting the outcomes they deserve.

The Justice Committee has heard from a large number of different groups to come to these conclusions. I hope that the Government take up all of our recommendations. If they do not the Justice Committee will continue to pressure and inquire the Government about its policies. We only have to look locally to see how the system is operating. Reform is needed now.