Criminal justice must be a priority for the new government, say magistrates

The criminal justice system must be a priority for the new government, says the Magistrates’ Association.

Jun 14, 2024
By Paul Jacques
Tom Franklin, chief executive of the Magistrates’ Association

The membership body for magistrates in England and Wales has urged the new Lord Chancellor to do a fundamental review of the criminal justice system and boost investment in all parts of it.

Tom Franklin, chief executive of the Magistrates’ Association, said: “After the election, the Lord Chancellor, whoever they are, will be faced with a criminal justice system in its worst state in living memory. Courts are crumbling, understaffed and overwhelmed with cases; probation services are struggling to cope; and prisons are bursting at their seams.

“There has been a tendency in recent years for governments to take knee-jerk decisions in reaction to the latest crisis, which only makes things worse somewhere else in the system. The recent operational measure to reduce the flow of cases into magistrates’ courts, Operation Early Dawn, is a perfect example of this.

“However, what is really needed is a fundamental review of the whole criminal justice system – policing, courts, probation, prisons, post-prison support, and rehabilitation services – that brings together all the key organisations involved, and a proper investment in the system. There are no quick fixes – what is needed is a long-term plan.

“We stand ready to work with the next government to improve the system for victims, witnesses and defendants.

He added: “We also need to have a grown-up discussion about sentencing. It is generally recognised that short custodial sentences are not very effective in promoting rehabilitation. We are concerned that plans to boost the capacity of the police will result in higher arrest rates.

“Without the resources needed to deal with them speedily, more people will be drawn into a criminal justice system increasingly beset by bottlenecks, delays and backlogs.”

The Magistrates’ Association has identified six areas for improvement :

  • Taking a whole-system approach to setting the right balance of resources between different parts of the criminal justice system;
  • Addressing staffing shortages across the criminal justice system, from court staff to probation officers to prison staff;
  • Investing in a wider range of high-quality community sentencing options across England and Wales that magistrates can have confidence in as alternatives to short custodial sentences;
  • Reviewing the potential for magistrates’ courts to take on greater work, to help reduce backlogs of the most serious cases in the Crown Court;
  • Addressing the dire physical state of court buildings, many of which are in a state of dilapidation; and
  • Improving the openness of the justice system, including more published performance data and reforms to the Single Justice Procedure.

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