According to the Law Society, magistrates should be better-trained when it comes to understanding their own powers and accurately apply sentencing guidelines. This, the Society said, could help put an end to a current practice of “venue shopping” among defendants for courts where they are likely to receive a more lenient sentence.
These statements were made in response to a consultation by the Sentencing Council, which set out to examine the matter of whether certain cases should fall to magistrates’ courts or the Crown courts. Better-training magistrates in these areas would, the Society suggested, reduce the risk of cases falling to the Crown courts “inappropriately.”
The reasoning behind this is based on what the Law Society describes as “a common perception of defence practitioners” about the ways in which certain cases are handled. Specifically, it relates to those cases which fall outside of definite Crown court or magistrates’ court territory, and therefore could fall to a court of either type depending on the individual circumstances of the case. Because of the different types of case that the two court types handle, the Society said, it is widely believed that many of these offences are seen as being “very much at the lower end of the seriousness spectrum” by judges in the Crown courts but are seen as much more serious by magistrates.
The result of this is that defendants stand to benefit from being sent to a Crown court in order to have their case heard rather than appearing before a magistrate, as they are likely to receive a more lenient sentence. Knowing this, defendants and their professional counsel may employ a number of methods in order to try and sway the decision of where the case will be heard towards the crown courts.
For this reason, the Law Society said: “There is a need for training for magistrates in the correct application of the sentencing guidelines aimed at eliminating or reducing disproportionate sentencing so that defendants do not ‘venue shop’.”
Alongside the call for improvements in the training magistrates receive with regards to sentencing guidelines, the Society also called for a number of other improvements to practice when it comes to deciding where cases will be heard and sentenced. The Society said that it is “preferable” that sentencing is handled by the same court that hears the case, as “the defendant’s demeanour during the trial may have a significant impact on the sentencing decision.” Furthermore, the Society revealed proposed new guidelines to ensure young offenders are only sent to Crown courts “where it is essential to the interests of justice, irrespective of adult co-defendants.”