These and similar arguments will become increasingly vocal in the near future because the Law Commission has recommended that the lower courts be allowed to sentence for up to twelve months custody. As expected, Magistrates Association chairman Richard Monkhouse quoted in the Guardian was quick to endorse such a possibility, “Magistrates are trained, ready and able to handle cases with longer sentences – we see this as an opportunity for the government to trust our members to do the job they signed up for.” From the opposite side of the sentencing divide no doubt there will be a response from the Howard League for Penal Reform long opposed to magistrates` courts having any powers at all of custodial sentencing....."The Howard League repeats its objection to the use of short prison sentences, which are ineffective and damaging and believe magistrates’ over-use of custody could be prevented if they were required to remand an individual to the Crown Court for a custodial sentence".
Having been compulsorily retired by HMCTS earlier this year although the impending imposition of the Criminal Courts Charge made me jump from the good ship justice a little earlier than required I can perhaps reflect more objectively than sitting J.P.s on this situation. There is an unhealthy number of them sitting only for the minimum required period demanded by the Ministry; 26 half days annually. The actual numbers are kept under lock and key by the country`s justices` clerks but from my earlier analysis of all J.P.s sacked by the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office about half were for failing to sit for that minimum number of times. I am informed by my own former colleagues that the number of two person benches is currently as high as it has ever been and that is with a reduced number of courts. In addition there is virtually widespread agreement that training for magistrates is not as effective it should be and that change is around the corner. The appraisal system is not fit for purpose. These facts alone give cause for concern. Whilst a winger might just get by sitting for three hours every fortnight for a chairman to be competent and to be seen as being competent such a sitting level is totally inadequate. However the Ministry is loathe to increase this minimum sitting requirement for chairmen because of the dire and increasing shortage of those eligible for the step up to the middle chair.
I doubt the legal profession is any too happy about the proposals. Young lawyers of both persuasions are unlikely to offer their services for an increased number of appearances at magistrates` courts where their financial rewards make the junior doctors current pay levels seem to be in the stratosphere.
The Law Commission`s proposals will IMHO be unlikely to come to fruition and with the impending reversal by Michael Gove over the Criminal Courts Charge likely to lead to mixed headlines he most certainly will not wish to make columns in the broadsheets by allowing magistrates increased sentencing powers at least not in the near future.