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Magistrates’ Sentencing Powers

Volume 533: debated on Tuesday 11 October 2011

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on magistrates’ sentencing powers. (72844)

I meet the Justice Secretary regularly, when we discuss a range of criminal justice issues, including magistrates’ sentencing powers.

It is clear that the Attorney-General and the Justice Secretary do not see eye to eye on magistrates’ sentencing powers. Will the Attorney-General clarify whether he disagrees with any other aspects of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which is currently going through Committee, such as the likely increase in the number of people forced to represent themselves in family law cases?

To stick to the point that arises from the question that was initially asked, I can assure the hon. Lady that there is no difference of view between my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor and myself on this matter. As she will be aware, in 2003, the previous Government introduced the power for magistrates to increase sentences as part of custody plus, but were never able to implement it because, I think, they were concerned about the rise in the prison population. There remains an issue of debate about the value of increasing those powers. It would undoubtedly put more cases into the magistrates courts, but at the same time it would run the risk of increasing the prison population. The problems remain much as they were under the previous Government. My right hon. and learned Friend has therefore taken the decision that it is best to keep this power in reserve, even though the way it is expressed at the moment is by no means perfect—it is linked to custody plus in the Criminal Justice Act 2003—and to consult thereafter on whether it could be brought into operation profitably to improve the working of the criminal justice system or might have to be replaced by a similar provision that was not linked or worded in the way that it is at present.

Is it correct that, on average, magistrates have imposed significantly longer sentences for offences committed in the context of the riots? If it is correct, does my right hon. and learned Friend welcome that, as I do, and will he confirm that magistrates are absolutely right to take the context in which certain offences are committed into consideration when determining sentences?

The courts always take the context in which an offence is committed into consideration in determining the appropriate sentence. Few people would disagree with the principle that it is a serious aggravating feature if an offence is committed in the midst of riotous assembly and general mayhem. As usual, if for any reason the courts have passed a sentence that is excessive or inappropriate in any way, it can be reviewed by the Court of Appeal. I am afraid that I cannot help my hon. Friend on the precise statistics. Quite apart from anything else, many cases are still coming into the courts in respect of behaviour and crime committed during the riots, and it is far too early to make a final assessment.

The Attorney-General assured the Justice Committee that he had given no guidance whatever to judges or magistrates on sentencing policy after the riots. Nevertheless, is he not concerned about the apparently disproportionate sentences that have been handed down to a lot of young people, which may of course be changed on appeal? Is he prepared to undertake a study so that we can see what has happened and find out how many young people who naively got involved in things that they should not have been involved in have been given wholly disproportionate sentences?

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I repeat what I said to the Justice Committee, which is that it is none of my business. It would be improper of me to express a view on individual cases and the sentencing done by judges. There are occasions when serious offences come to my office under the unduly lenient sentences referral scheme, which may be referred to the Court of Appeal. However, that does not really come into the picture in the matter that the hon. Gentleman raises. I have no doubt that how sentences have been passed in the post-riot period will be the subject of study in due course, as such things usually are. As I said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), many cases are still coming into the courts. The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that there are currently cases before the Court of Appeal in respect of the riots, and it will doubtless be able to provide some guidelines.

In his discussions with the Secretary of State for Justice, has the Attorney-General looked at magistrates using restorative justice as part of their sentencing powers?

The Lord Chancellor is certainly committed to using restorative justice as part of his programme of reducing reoffending through the rehabilitation of offenders. Powers are available to magistrates in that area. As my right hon. Friend will appreciate, further changes to the law are a matter for the Lord Chancellor and his Department, rather than for me.