Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

More criminal trials to be heard in the magistrates’ court

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Early in 2016, there was an announcement that more criminal cases would be dealt with in the magistrates’ courts, rather than being sent to the Crown Court.

The source for this announcement was not a new piece of legislation, redrawing the boundaries between cases heard in these two courts. Rather, it was the announcement that, from 1 March 2016, the Sentencing Council was issuing ‘definitive guidance’ on how cases triable either way – i.e. summarily (in the Magistrates’ Court) or on indictment (in the Crown Court) were to be allocated.

One of the key recommendations of the Leveson Review of Efficiency in Criminal Proceedings was

“Magistrates’ Courts must be encouraged to be far more robust in their application of the allocation guideline which mandates [emphasis added] that either way offences should be tried summarily unless it is likely that the court’ssentencing powers will be insufficient. The word “likely” does not mean “possible” and permits the court to take account of potential mitigation and guilty plea, so can encompass cases where the discount for a guilty plea is the feature that brings the case into the Magistrates’ jurisdiction. It is important to underline that,provided the option to commit for sentence is publicly identified, the decision to retain jurisdiction does not
fetter discretion to commit for sentence even after requesting a pre-sentence report”.
The Sentencing Council consulted on a change to their guidance on allocation and have provided new guidance which comes into effect on 1 March 2016.
The guidance states:
1. In general, either way offences should be tried summarily unless:
• the outcome would clearly be a sentence in excess of the court’s powers for the offence(s) concerned after taking into account personal mitigation and any potential reduction for a guilty plea; or
• for reasons of unusual legal, procedural or factual complexity, the case should be tried in the Crown Court. This exception may apply in cases where a very substantial fine is the likely sentence.
Other circumstances where this exception will apply are likely to be rare and case specific; the court will rely on the submissions of the parties to identify relevant cases.
2. In cases with no factual or legal complications the court should bear in mind its power to commit for sentence after a trial and may retain jurisdiction notwithstanding that the likely sentence might exceed its powers.
3. Cases may be tried summarily even where the defendant is subject to a Crown Court Suspended Sentence Order or Community Order.
4. All parties should be asked by the court to make representations as to whether the case is suitable for summary trial. The court should refer to definitive guidelines (if any) to assess the likely sentence for the offence in the light of the facts alleged by the prosecution case, taking into account all aspects of the case including those advanced by the defence, including any personal mitigation to which the defence wish to refer.
Where the court decides that the case is suitable to be dealt with in the magistrates’ court, it must warn the defendant that all sentencing options remain open and, if the defendant consents to summary trial and is convicted by the court or pleads guilty, the defendant may be committed to the Crown Court for sentence.
It is estimated that a significant number of cases will in future be retained in magistrates’ courts as a result of this guidance.
The Sentencing Council makes bold claims for the new guideline, stating:
The guideline aims to bring about a change in culture and will inevitably provide some challenges, but the Council is confident from the responses to the consultation that the guideline will be welcomed by sentencers and will play a role in ensuring that justice is delivered fairly, swiftly and efficiently in more cases.
The press notice is at http://www.sentencingcouncil.org.uk/news/item/sentencing-council-issues-definitive-allocation-guideline/
The link to the guideline is at http://www.sentencingcouncil.org.uk/publications/item/allocation-guideline-revised/
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Written by lwtmp

January 21, 2016 at 6:40 pm

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