How speedily do magistrates work?

Published: 13th Jul 2012

"Most guilty pleas, for example, are dealt with within a week of charge."

Greg Foxsmith, Solicitor

"The average length of time between an offence being committed and sentence in the magistrates' courts is five months."

Nick Herbert MP

Today Programme, 13 July 2012

This morning's Today Programme saw a discussion about the merits of government proposals to speed up the process of justice.

Solicitor Greg Foxsmith asserted that most guilty pleas are dealt with very quickly. Nick Herbert MP, Minister for Police and Criminal Justice, claimed that Mr. Foxsmith's assertion was incorrect, saying that, on average, there is a five-month gap between an offence being committed and a sentence being passed by magistrates.

So who's right?

Analysis

The Ministry of Justice has recently started to release figures on offence to completion times in its 'Judicial and Court Statistics' documents. Page 36 of the 2011 release easily tells us that the figure which Mr. Herbert cited is correct. On average, there is a 144-day gap between offence and sentencing.

As the information which led to this figure was taken from data gathered by individual courts, it can be assumed to be as accurate as can be expected.

With that said, this doesn't necessarily mean that Mr. Foxsmith is incorrect to say that most guilty pleas are dealt with between a week of charge. Note that this isn't the same as the figure Mr. Herbert mentioned, as Mr. Foxsmith is looking at a more specific point. Mr. Herbert is looking at the time it takes for an offence to be committed and sentence to be passed, while Mr. Foxsmith mentions the amount of time which passes between a charge and a sentence when the defendant pleads guilty.

The breakdown on the figure above tells us that the average amount of time between a charge and a sentence is 57 days, with 34 days between the charge and 'first listing', and a further 23 between first listing and sentencing. These are quite some distance from a week whatever the measure, whether it's defined by working days or as a seven-day period.

It's conceivable that this number is inflated by defendants who do not plead guilty from the outset, and where a full trial takes place. However data on the length of proceedings specifically involving a 'guilty' verdict are more difficult to come by. 

What we do know from table A3.15 of the Ministry of Justice's 'Criminal Justice Statistics' is that 70.7 per cent of defendants plead guilty in the magistrates' court, so the procedure length figures above will mostly concist of guilty pleas.

For this reason, it might seem less than likely that proceedings overall for guilty pleas could be completed in the space of a week, although it's not clear what Mr Foxsmith means by 'dealt with'.

Conclusions

Mr Herbert's figures are accurate: the amount of time between an offence being committed and sentence being passed is, on average, in the region of five months.

It isn't immediately obvious where Mr Foxsmith's claim comes from. While the start/finish times he talks about are more restricted that Mr Herbert's, it's unclear what data backs up the claim that most guilty proceedings take less than a week.

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