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Sentencing (Cameron Ross)

Volume 532: debated on Thursday 8 September 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Angela Watkinson.)

I am extremely grateful to Mr Speaker for going out of his way to grant me this important debate, and I would be grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker, if you could convey my thanks to him.

This case has had significant repercussions for the family of the victim, Mr Daryl Stevens, and particularly his mother, Mrs Jacqueline Stevens, who has worked tirelessly on Daryl’s behalf to secure justice for her son.

On a wider point, in the aftermath of the riots last month, the issues of sentencing policy, the consistency of sentencing and confidence among the general public in sentencing decisions have attracted considerable debate. I fully appreciate the notion that politicians make the law, police enforce the law and judges interpret the law. I also understand the inherent risks in politicians passing opinion on whether a sentence is too harsh or too lenient. However, it is entirely reasonable for this House to express its views on sentencing and as a Member of the House I am determined to represent the concerns of my constituent.

Before I mention the specifics of the case, I want to outline the theory and principle behind the concept of undue leniency. I appreciate that the Solicitor-General is a man of considerable legal distinction and he is far more aware than I am of the concept of an unduly lenient sentence, which is a sentence that is not strong enough for the seriousness and circumstances of the crime that has been committed. When someone has been found guilty of a crime in a court of law, the judge decides what sentence they should serve. In some cases, if interested parties, whether that is the Crown Prosecution Service or, in the case of my constituent Mr Stevens, his mother, think that the sentence is not severe enough, they can contact the Attorney-General to ask him to consider referring the case to the Court of Appeal within 28 days of the day after sentencing. If he decides to refer the case, it is then for the Court of Appeal to decide whether the sentence is unduly lenient.

Let me refer to the specifics of the case. My constituent, Mr Daryl Stevens, was 17 years old at the time of the attack. He was attacked by Cameron Ross with a broken bottle on 22 April 2011. Ross had been drinking prior to the attack, which appeared to be unprovoked, and at his trial he could provide little explanation for why he had attacked Mr Stevens. Ross had been released on licence but had breached this licence by being arrested for a serious violent assault, allegedly involving a baseball bat, for which he had been charged. He had then been released on bail despite the obvious breach of the licence. Mrs Stevens is rightly concerned that had Ross’s breach of his licence terms led to an automatic return to prison, he would not have been free on the streets to commit the assault on her son.

During the attack, a bottle was smashed into Mr Stevens’ head, the back of his neck and his face. He underwent a four-hour operation in which surgeons removed glass from his body, finding shards and splinters close to his spinal cord. His family were told that he had been millimetres from permanent paralysis or even death. Frankly, Daryl Stevens is lucky to be alive today. He was helped by the skills of NHS surgeons, but he is permanently scarred and will have to face the physical and psychological repercussions of the attack for the rest of his life.

At the trial, Ross pleaded guilty to a charge of wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm. That is a very serious offence, which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Ross was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment—the lowest conceivable sentence for somebody found guilty of this offence. Sentence was passed on 1 June. Mrs Stevens e-mailed me on 6 June to express her concerns about the sentence and the following day I wrote to the Attorney-General outlining the case and asking him to consider referring the case to the Court of Appeal. On 28 June—the last-but-one day on which this could be done—the Solicitor-General replied to me stating that in his opinion the sentence was not unduly lenient. He said that he had looked closely at the range of sentences that the judge could have passed and did not consider that the sentence was outside that range.

The Solicitor-General also replied to Mrs Stevens on the same day, conveying the same message. His letter to her consisted of five short paragraphs and gave no real explanation as to the reasoning behind the decision not to refer the case to the Court of Appeal. Mrs Stevens was particularly upset by a line in the opening paragraph of the letter which said:

“The hours you spent in the hospital waiting for news must have been dreadful but I am sure the trauma of that terrible experience will fade in time”.

Let me stress that I think the Solicitor-General, who is on the Treasury Front Bench, is a decent and civilised man, and I know that he did not wish to cause Mrs Stevens additional distress. In his subsequent correspondence to me, it is very clear that he was horrified that his comments might have caused offence to my constituent. I raise the comments in the House tonight not to cause embarrassment to the Solicitor-General but to point out to him that the short letter to Mrs Stevens—to the point of callousness and abruptness in her view—and that particular comment, which she felt to be insensitive and patronising, reinforced her view that nobody was listening to her concerns.

One of Mrs Stevens’ concerns was her belief that crucial medical evidence was not provided to the court during the original trial, or at least was not seen by the judge. In his letter to Mrs Stevens, the Solicitor-General stated:

“As I am sure you will appreciate the Crown Prosecution Service is in a better position than I am to deal with this issue.”

In subsequent correspondence to me, the Solicitor-General concluded that CPS staff had met Mrs Stevens to discuss the issue and that she had found the meeting satisfactory, but that is far from being the case. Mrs Stevens told me that the CPS has stated that it is not able to provide answers to many of her questions regarding the medical reports. This has left her feeling that agencies are not talking to one another and that communication with important parties such as the victim’s family in order to answer questions and resolve difficulties are not being given sufficient priority. She also feels that there is little transparency and communication as to how medical records and other evidence are used to come to particular decisions.

I received a very considered, thoughtful and detailed letter from the Solicitor-General dated 16 August 2011. In that letter, he set out, with commendable thoroughness, details of the case, information that was provided to the judge and consideration in the case of the relevant sentencing guidelines. I found it very helpful that the Solicitor-General outlined in his letter the four sentencing ranges for offences of grievous bodily harm with intent, with the judge and both prosecution and defence counsel all in agreement at the trial that, on the evidence provided, the appropriate range to use was that of four to six years’ custody, with a starting point of five years.

The letter gave a very clear view of information provided in the court and elements of the Solicitor-General’s thinking as he considered referring the case to the Court of Appeal, but my point is this: why did we not get something similar to that first time round? Why did it take a complaint from Mrs Stevens, channelled through me, and the prospect of this debate in Parliament, to ensure that better communication and some greater transparency in the decision making process occurred?

Mrs Stevens has felt let down at every stage of the judicial process and I suspect that, given what is in her view a light sentence, nothing would comfort her regarding her wish to see justice being done—that is thoroughly understandable—but I suggest that if she had been involved and if an open dialogue on what was decided had been promoted, the case might not have escalated to this stage.

Successive Governments have stated that victims should be at the heart of the criminal justice system. With this case in mind, will the Solicitor-General therefore resolve to improve communication with relevant parties, particularly victims and their families, and ensure that, at the earliest possible stage, as much information as possible is provided? I think that that would help to reassure parties such as my constituent and make victims feel that not only should they have their day in court to see justice done, but that they can feel sufficiently important and valued within the system, and can be comfortable as to the decisions that are made.

I mentioned that it was considered appropriate in this case to use the range of four to six years’ custody, with a starting point of five years. I suspect that, at the very least, a five-year custodial sentence would have allowed Mrs Stevens and her family to believe that justice had been better served. Mrs Stevens has expressed concern to me that the sentence was excessively reduced due to such mitigating circumstances as Ross’s young age—he was 18 at the time of the attack—his status as a notional first-time offender and his early guilty plea. However, there is a case for stating that Ross was an adult, and was able to stand trial as an adult, so therefore age had no real bearing.

I also understand from Mrs Stevens that Ross did not plead guilty at the earliest possible opportunity, which could conceivably have been a mitigating factor, but denied the offence when he was arrested, taken to the police station and charged, and changed his plea only at court, during the trial.

My main concern, however, is the failure to recognise the breach of the licence. I would say to the Solicitor-General in general terms that the public will have no confidence in the judicial system if offenders who have breached the terms of their licence do not have that taken into account during sentencing. It should be a major factor that increases the severity of the sentence.

Ross had breached the terms of his licence, and had been released on bail after being charged with violent offences. That allowed him to attack Mr Daryl Stevens in such a brutal and life-threatening fashion. Why did the Solicitor-General not take that into account when considering whether to refer the case? Why did he not pay particular attention to the sentencing guideline in relation to this offence, which states that other aggravating factors, which could increase the length of a custodial sentence, would include commission of an offence while under the influence of alcohol, which happened in this case, and—particularly relevant to the case—the fact that the offence was committed while on licence? Why was that not given sufficient regard?

I reiterate in the strongest possible terms to the Solicitor-General that the public will not have confidence in sentencing if such factors, set out clearly in the guidance, are not seen to be used when passing sentence.

In the time remaining, I want to raise a general point in relation to the process for considering sentences unduly lenient. I have mentioned that the Attorney-General can take 28 days to consider whether a case should be referred to the Court of Appeal. I suspect that most cases would take up all that period, as files need to be obtained and reviewed, and matters need to be considered properly.

It does mean, however, that there is little scope for representation. I was hoping to have a meeting with the Attorney-General or the Solicitor-General to discuss the case and, in particular, the fact that the decision was made and communicated with only one day to spare. I appreciate that there is a tension and trade-off between thoroughness and swiftness, but does the Solicitor-General think that there is any merit in extending this strict 28-day period to ensure that the fullest representation possible can be made from hon. Members as well as interested parties?

As I stated earlier, Mrs Stevens does not feel that authority has been on her side following her son’s assault. I hope that the Solicitor-General will use the opportunity available to address the points I have raised and help ensure that the horrific experience that Mrs Stevens and Daryl, as well as their family, friends and neighbours, have unfortunately faced will lead to a better and more responsive criminal justice system for victims and their families.

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) on initiating the debate so that we can discuss these important and highly sensitive issues. He has, very properly, brought his constituents’ concerns to the Floor of the House. In responding, I will say something about my role as Solicitor-General with regard to both unduly lenient sentences in general and this case in particular. He should not be in the least concerned about causing me embarrassment. If embarrassment is warranted, it is his right and duty to embarrass me. I am accountable to Parliament and willingly appear to answer for my role as Solicitor-General. He should have no inhibitions in that regard. Indeed, he should be praised for vigorously pursuing the interests of his constituents—mother and son—with such attention.

Before I respond to the points the hon. Gentleman has outlined, let me focus on the horrific crime with which we are concerned. As he said, it was an offence contrary to section 18 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which deals with one of the most serious non-fatal offences of violence on the criminal statute book. There is no doubt that the offence committed against Daryl Stevens last April caused great physical and emotional suffering. The victim and his family live with the consequences of the crime day in, day out, and as the hon. Gentleman has said, the impact on their daily lives has been considerable. Nothing I said or wrote earlier in the summer, either to the hon. Gentleman or to his constituent, was intended to underestimate the impact upon Daryl Stevens or his mother. I do not think it did.

On the day of the attack, Daryl Stevens, then aged 17, was doing what many young people do: spending time with friends and having a good time. He was in Chicago’s Pizzeria in Hartlepool about to order some food when he was viciously attacked in public by a drunk who glassed him—he struck him several times in the head and neck with a broken glass bottle. The attack caused a 3-cm laceration to the back of his scalp, a 3-cm laceration to his left cheek and a 2-cm penetrating wound to the back of his neck. A fragment of glass, among many others, was found very close to his spinal cord. The culprit, Cameron Ross, was later caught and, after pleading guilty, sentenced to three years’ detention in a young offenders institution. The sentence took into account the timing of his plea and the mitigation advanced on his behalf, to which I shall return.

Nothing I say today, and nothing I have written to the hon. Gentleman or his constituent, can eradicate the hurt caused by this dreadful offence, but I hope that what I say today will go some way towards clarifying my role in relation to the case and the way the Attorney-General and I exercise our powers on unduly lenient sentences generally. I understand that the senior prosecutor from the Crown Prosecution Service with responsibility for the case met Mrs Stevens in late July to explain the prosecution process and discuss matters further. My impression was that she left that meeting satisfied, but the hon. Gentleman clearly has a different assessment. Unfortunately, neither of us was at that meeting, but none the less there is an issue that we unfortunately cannot resolve. But, the meeting was held, and at least it indicates a willingness on behalf of the Crown Prosecution Service to make sure that victims and families are treated properly following hideous crimes such as this.

Of course, many people may consider the sentence of three years’ detention to be too low, and other judges might have given a longer sentence while others might not, but sentencing is an independent judicial function, carried out by judges and magistrates within a framework set by this House, for which the Justice Secretary has responsibility within the Government. That framework provides for statutory sentencing guidelines to be issued and followed by the courts, and for sentences for certain offences that the Law Officers consider to be “unduly lenient” to be referred to the Court of Appeal to consider whether they should be increased.

The offences within the unduly lenient sentence scheme are limited by statute and, unsurprisingly, are the most serious ones, including grievous bodily harm—commonly called GBH—under section 18 of the 1861 Act. We must also refer cases within 28 days of the sentence. That is the statutory time limit, and if it is to be extended, it will need the Justice Secretary to amend legislation, but, in my experience and that of my officials, Treasury counsel and the Crown Prosecution Service, that period provides plenty of time for the case to be fully thought about, as it was in this particular instance.

The Attorney-General and I referred about 100 cases to the Court of Appeal last year. We appear in court ourselves to argue them on occasion, and indeed we have done so on more occasions than our recent predecessors, such is our interest in the matter that the hon. Gentleman has brought before the House.

It is, however, the Court of Appeal—not we as Law Officers—that decides what constitutes “unduly lenient”, and it has stressed on many occasions that increasing a sentence already passed on an offender is an exceptional remedy. Sentences will not be increased unless they are significantly below what the judge should have passed. In the Attorney-General’s reference No. 4 of 1989, the Court of Appeal said:

“A sentence is unduly lenient, we would hold, where it falls outside the range of sentences which the judge, applying his mind to all the relevant factors, could reasonably consider appropriate”.

As Law Officers, the Attorney-General and I exercise our own discretion in accordance with the way in which the law has been applied by the Court of Appeal. The unduly lenient sentence regime is not simply a general right of appeal against a low sentence or an opportunity for the prosecution to have another bite at the cherry; it is an exceptional remedy for exceptional cases, and when we refer cases to the Court of Appeal, we do so not as political Ministers or politicians, but in our capacity as independent guardians of the public interest.

There is a further aspect to the unduly lenient sentence regime that I should mention. The Court of Appeal will review the sentence imposed only on the basis of the information available to the sentencing judge in the Crown court at the time. It will not take into account material that might be thought now to provide grounds for a sentence to be increased if it was not available to the sentencing judge at the time of the sentence. In accordance with those principles, I considered whether the sentence imposed on Cameron Ross was unduly lenient, and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, I concluded that it was not.

The relevant sentencing guideline—the Sentencing Guidelines Council’s definitive guideline on assault and offences against the person—provides four sentences ranges for this particular offence, reflecting different categories of seriousness. The sentencing judge, along with prosecution and defence counsel, considered that the appropriate sentencing range specified by the guidelines was four to six years’ custody, with a starting point after a contested trial of five years, and I agree that that sentencing range was the appropriate one.

The guidelines state that the types of assault offences that fall within the four to six-year range are as follows:

“Victim suffered a very serious injury or permanent disfigurement; or Pre-meditated wounding or GBH; or Other wounding or GBH involving the use of a weapon that came to hand at the scene.”

The offender in this case, Cameron Ross, had previous convictions and committed the offence while on licence. Those were aggravating factors. That said, he was young, being 18 years old at the time of the offence, and that was a factor that took the sentence towards the lower end of the sentencing range. In addition to detailing his antecedence, the pre-sentence report prepared by the probation service set out the offender’s personal mitigating factors, which the judge took into account. He will also have taken into account defence counsel’s submissions on Ross’s behalf.

As I wrote in my letter to the hon. Gentleman on 16 August, to which he referred,

“I understand from the transcript of the sentencing remarks that the judge did have Daryl’s statement and saw photographs of his injuries. In his statement Daryl reports exactly what he was told by doctors at the James Cook hospital. The judge will have been aware that doctors told him that he was lucky to be alive as glass was only one millimetre away from his spine, that the wound in his cheek was through to the bone and had just missed a nerve which may have left him paralysed on one side of his face, and that he would require a further operation to remove glass from his head.”

I went on to say that I noted from the hon. Gentleman’s letter that Mrs Stevens’ concerns related also to the fact that Cameron Ross had apparently breached his licence before committing the offence against her son, and that she believed that he

“should have been detained as a result of this earlier breach.”

The problem is that that issue is about how offenders suspected of a crime should be dealt with by the bailing court and is not a matter for the Court of Appeal, nor for me, through an unduly lenient reference. As I informed the hon. Gentleman, I also understand that Ross had not been convicted of these matters at the time when the sentence that we are concerned with was handed down, so they could not be taken into account.

Sentencing is an art, not a science. I know that from observing the process as a barrister over the past 35 or 40 years and as a Crown court recorder who, since 1998, has passed a good many sentences. It is the role of the judge to look at the aggravating and mitigating features of the offence and the offender, and to reach a conclusion that reflects the interests of justice in the case as regards the victims, the offender and society generally.

In this case, the sentencing judge considered that the appropriate sentence after a trial would have been four and a half years. The defendant had pleaded guilty at what the judge considered—not what I considered—to be the earliest available opportunity and so was awarded full credit for doing so via a discount of a third off his sentence, bringing the final figure to three years’ imprisonment. There is another debate to be had about what is the proper public policy behind discounts for early pleas, but that is not one that I can enter into today.

It is not my role as Solicitor-General simply to conclude that a higher sentence could have been imposed or that the sentence was lenient and could have been more severe, and that therefore it must be referred to the Court of Appeal. I have to be persuaded that the sentence was unduly lenient—I underline the word “unduly”. In this case, the sentence fell squarely within a proper application of the guidelines and for that reason I did not refer it to the Court of Appeal.

It is not always appropriate for this House to engage in a detailed discussion of the merits of an individual case, although our criminal justice system is of course as open to public criticism as any other area of public interest. As I said, the hon. Gentleman has quite properly advanced his concerns and those of his constituents about this case. I hope that I have explained the approach that I took and that I take, and that that is of some help to him. I appreciate that his constituent, the victim’s mother, was naturally distressed by what happened to her son and wanted quite properly to be assured that justice was done. However, in my view it would not have been fair to take the case to the Court of Appeal and thereby give her and her son false hope, only for them to be disappointed.

On the provision of information to Mrs Stevens, I am sorry that she did not get what the hon. Gentleman feels she should have got as quickly as she wanted. It was certainly not my intention to withhold information that ought to have been, and I hoped had been, candidly given to her. If she is still upset, I repeat my apology.

Towards the end of his remarks, the hon. Gentleman mentioned the point about the breach of licence, and I hope that I have provided an explanation in relation to that.

I conclude by saying that the hon. Gentleman has done his duty to his constituents and to this House, and I thank him for doing it. I hope that he will recognise that I, if perhaps with less enthusiasm than he might be prepared to accept, have done mine.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.