The government is set to dramatically increase the powers of magistrates to impose fines under new measures for England and Wales. Magistrates are to get unlimited fining powers in respect of certain offences under a statutory instrument laid before parliament on 10 June to bring into force provisions of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.
The proposed changes will see:
- The Level 1 fine maximum increase from £200 to £800. Offences which may be dealt with by a Level 1 fine include unauthorised cycle racing on public ways.
- Level 2 increases from £500 to £2,000. Offences include driving a motor cycle without a protective helmet.
- Level 3 increases from £1,000 to £4,000. Offences include the sale of alcohol to a drunk person or being drunk and disorderly in a public place.
- Level 4 increases from £2,500 to £10,000. Offences include speeding on the motorway.
In addition, for offences with a current maximum fine of £5,000 or more such as arson, fraud and animal cruelty offences, magistrates will have unlimited powers to fine offenders.
Although these measures mark a significant increase in the powers of magistrates, the Ministry of Justice was keen to stress that custody will continue to be used for serious offenders and fines will not become an alternative for custodial sentences. Jeremy Wright, Parliamentary Under Secretary for Justice, also remarked that, ‘Magistrates are the cornerstone of our justice system and these changes will provide them with greater powers to deal with the day-to-day offences that impact their local communities.’
Over 95% of all criminal cases in England and Wales are dealt with by the Magistrates Court. These latest measures will have a serious impact on the range of penalties imposed on offenders and could potentially lead to a marked increase in the severity of punishments in our criminal justice system. There is also a concern that innocent people will plead guilty at an early stage in hope of avoiding a hefty fine without fully appreciating the consequences for their personal lives.