New Justice Secretary has a long to-do list, say magistrates

The Magistrates’ Association is urging Labour to make criminal and family justice a priority.

Jul 9, 2024
By Paul Jacques

This means carrying out a “fundamental review” of the criminal justice system and boosting investment in all parts of it, it said.

Tom Franklin, chief executive of the Magistrates’ Association, said Labour’s new Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice Shabana Mahmood MP “faces huge challenges”.

“Our criminal justice system is in its worst state in living memory,” he said. “Courts are crumbling, understaffed and overwhelmed with cases; probation services are struggling to cope; and prisons are bursting at their seams.

“There is a long list of pressing tasks, but knee-jerk decisions made in reaction to the latest criminal justice crisis – whether that is a shortage of police officers, or our prisons being full – won’t be effective without also building capacity in other parts of the system, such as the courts, the judiciary and probation services – and will only make things worse.

“The recent operational measure to reduce the flow of cases into magistrates’ courts, Operation Early Dawn, is a perfect example of this.”

Mr Franklin added: “There are no quick fixes – what is needed is a long-term plan. To truly fix a criminal justice system that is on its knees, we urge the government to fundamentally review the whole system – policing, courts, probation, prisons, post-prison support, and rehabilitation services – bring together all the key organisations involved, and back it up with proper and sustained investment.

“We must also 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 – but without the resources needed to deal with them speedily, this will just increase bottlenecks, delays and backlogs.

“The Government should also put family court reform on the agenda.

“We look forward to working with the new government to improve the system for victims, witnesses and defendants.”

Among areas for improvement identified by the Magistrates’ Association are taking a whole-system approach to setting the right balance of resources between different parts of the criminal and family justice systems, and 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.

The potential for magistrates’ courts to take on greater work, to help reduce backlogs of the most serious cases in the Crown Court, should also be reviewed.

Mr Franklin’s views are echoed by the president of the Law Society of England and Wales, Nick Emmerson.

He said: “The appointment of the new Justice Secretary Shabana Mahmood is a unique opportunity to bring much-needed change to our justice system and address the longstanding neglect and underinvestment that have left it on the verge of collapse.

“The challenges ahead are significant and immediate solutions are unlikely while other priorities – like the prison crisis – demand urgent attention.

“It’s crucial to acknowledge that transforming the justice system is a long-term project, requiring a collaborative effort.”

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