Magistrates’ courts deal with the vast majority of criminal cases in the UK. However, very little data is available to understand how magistrates and district judges in the magistrates’ courts make their decisions. In particular, there is a distinct lack of information available on how decision-makers in the magistrates’ courts determine bail. Whilst decision-makers are required to give reasons for their decisions with respect to bail, this information is not made publicly available. It is therefore difficult to assess whether the law is being properly applied. Moreover, this lack of information undermines efforts to identify and address any concerning trends that might exist.
To better understand decision making in the magistrates’ courts JUSTICE, with the assistance of students at University College London and Newcastle University and lawyers at Reed Smith LLP, is undertaking observational research of remand hearings. The aim is to gather data to understand if there are any problematic patterns of decision making in respect of remand issues and possible systemic issues, particularly around racial and gender bias.
In particular this research aims to shed light on the following questions:
- Are the exceptions to unconditional bail in the Bail Act 1976 being properly applied by magistrates?
- Are the factors set out in the Bail Act regarding decisions to remand in custody being properly considered by magistrates?
- To what extent do magistrates provide reasoning for their decision and what is the quality of that reasoning?
- What differences are there, if any, between the decision-making of District Judges in the magistrates’ courts and the decision-making of lay magistrates?
- Is there evidence of remand being used to address social issues which are better addressed in the community?
- What are the demographics of the bench, court staff, advocates, and defendants?
We will use the outcomes of this research to help understand how to improve the processes and outcomes in respect of powers to remand individuals in custody in the magistrates’ courts. Improving decision-making in the magistrates’ courts with regard to their powers to remand in custody is crucially important given the large number of individuals imprisoned under them and the lengthy delays in standing trial. Improving decision-making should result in a greater proportion of defendants being remanded on bail rather than in custody, allowing them to retain their community involvement, family life, and employment – important factors in reducing future offending. It will also benefit ethnic minority defendants, who are far more likely to be remanded in custody than their White counterparts.