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Criminal Sentences

Volume 568: debated on Tuesday 15 October 2013

6. On how many occasions during the last 12 months his Department has referred a criminal sentence to the Court of Appeal for review on the grounds that it was unduly lenient. (900463)

As my hon. Friend will be aware, the power to refer sentences is an exceptional remedy reserved for those cases in which the sentence is so far below the range of sentences it was reasonable to impose that public confidence in the criminal justice system risks being damaged. For 2012, the most recent period for which statistics on unduly lenient sentence cases have been published, we received 435 requests for sentences to be reviewed, of which 82 were referred as unduly lenient and heard by the Court of Appeal. For the period ending 30 September 2013, we have received 352 requests for sentences to be reviewed, of which 57 have been referred to the Court of Appeal and have been, or are due to be, heard by the Court.

In that case, could the Attorney-General please assure the House that he will give due consideration to widening the scope to appeal against unduly lenient sentences? I am sure he will agree that weak sentences by our courts let down the victim, the judiciary and the whole of society.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the scheme is currently restricted to a list of serious offences. It is right to say that we have added to that list in recent years. In August 2012, the offence of trafficking people for exploitation was added, as were racially or religiously aggravated assaults in October 2003 and various offences under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 in 2006. It is always possible for cases to be added to the list, but it is important to bear in mind that references take up court time and there must be a limit to the number of cases that the Court of Appeal can hear. One must also bear in mind that there has to be a degree of finality and these things have to be balanced out. If my hon. Friend knows of any cases or types of offences that he thinks might be added, I am always happy to consider such matters. It is, obviously, ultimately a matter for my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor, but we discuss these matters and will act if we think it necessary.

I am usually a great fan of the Attorney-General, but the way in which he has handled the case of Elena Fanaru is very disappointing. She now lies in a grave in Romania. The man who knocked her down and killed her, having fled the scene of the accident, got only one year and four months in prison. When are we going to make sure that such people really do face justice?

I am not going to comment on an individual case. I am quite satisfied that, in so far as I have been able to have any role in this matter, I have acted properly. In so far as it is a matter of where the law needs to be changed, that is for this House to decide.

May I urge the Attorney-General to work with the Lord Chancellor to extend the period in which an appeal can be made against an unduly lenient sentence from the current 28 days? Could he also give a word of encouragement to campaigners such as the excellent Families Fighting for Justice who claim it would make a big difference to victims of the most serious offences?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Certainly, the question of the time limit will be looked at by my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor. I am certainly open to suggestions, although it is right to say that if we have a new time limit there will always be the risk that it will also be exceeded in some cases. It is important that cases should be reviewed quickly. In some cases the defendant/offender may not have been given a custodial sentence, and to have a long period of delay before a custodial sentence is then imposed is clearly undesirable.