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Access to Justice Act 1999

Committals for sentence

260.Currently, cases committed to the Crown Court for sentence must be heard in the Crown Court by a bench composed of a High Court Judge, Circuit Judge or Recorder sitting with between two and four justices of the peace. In October 1997, a new procedure was implemented requiring defendants to indicate how they intend to plead before the decision is made about whether the case should be heard in the magistrates’ court or the Crown Court (section 17A of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980, as amended by section 49 of the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996). This has led to an increase in the number and seriousness of cases committed to the Crown Court solely for sentence. (Previously, all more serious cases were committed for trial, although many defendants subsequently pleaded guilty).

261.The change in procedure has meant that magistrates are dealing in the Crown Court with cases which are outside their normal range of experience. Last year, the Government issued a consultation paper (Magistrates sitting as judges in the Crown Court, Lord Chancellor’s Department, August 1998) which examined the role of magistrates in the Crown Court. The majority of responses agreed that the requirement for magistrates to sit on committals for sentence should be removed.

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