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England and Wales: Role of Magistrates’ Court in Decline?

(Sept. 22, 2010) The magistrates' courts in England and Wales have witnessed a decline in the number of cases over the past ten years, with over 310,000 offenders fewer heard in 2009 than in 1999. The role of the magistrate, which is coming up on its 650-year anniversary next year, is to deliver justice locally, and this is done through the use of lay justices who sit alone without a jury to try summary cases. In summary cases, the maximum sentence is a fine and/or up to six months of imprisonment. Currently, 95% of criminal cases brought to the courts in England and Wales are heard by magistrates.

Part of the decline in the number of cases being heard is being ascribed to the increased use of police cautions, on-the-spot fines, and agreements with prosecutors, with reportedly over half of all detected crimes being dealt with in this manner, outside the courts.

The publication of these statistics, combined with Ministry of Justice plans to close 130 courts throughout the country to save money, has led a United Kingdom think tank to warn that caution should be used so that this does not signify a move towards the use of summary justice by police. (Tom Whitehead, Magistrates in Doubt as Summary Justice Rises?, TELEGRAPH (London) (Sept. 21, 2010),
; Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, Magistrates' Courts' and Crown Court Expenditure, 1999-2009 (Sept. 2010),