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Unduly Lenient Sentences

Volume 573: debated on Tuesday 7 January 2014

1. On how many occasions in the last 12 months he has referred a criminal sentence to the Court of Appeal for review because it was felt to be unduly lenient. (901833)

From 31 December 2012 to 1 January 2014, the sentences of 67 offenders were referred as unduly lenient and have either been heard or are due to be heard by the Court of Appeal.

The will of Parliament was that the use of a knife in an aggravated fashion would carry a mandatory six-month jail sentence, but according to the latest statistics, the courts have imposed such a sentence in only half of all cases. Does the Attorney-General agree that perhaps these should be considered for appeal, and does he back Parliament’s will?

My hon. Friend may be aware that such cases are not currently referable. It is for Parliament to decide whether it wishes to extend and make referable those sentences. If Parliament’s will is that they should be, it is my job to consider that. It is worth bearing in mind that the principle enunciated originally was that only a small number of cases in specified and very serious offences would ever be referred. But there needs to be finality in sentencing and, of course, if many more cases are referred, that will place burdens both on the Court of Appeal in considering them and on my office in making the assessment of around 450 cases per annum.

Thank you, Mr Speaker and happy new year. Does the Attorney-General agree that, at the end of the day, it is for the judges who hear the evidence in a case to decide what the sentence should be?

The hon. Lady is quite right. We must rely on judges’ judiciousness in deciding what sentences should be. Occasionally there will be examples that are unduly lenient and fall within the specified schedule where I can make a reference. The object of the reference is not only to correct the particular sentence that has been passed but to try to lay down a good precedent for the future. It is noteworthy that we have referred fewer cases overall in the last 12 months than the 12 months before. That may be an indication of the extent to which the Sentencing Council is working to ensure consistency.

What proportion of the 67 cases were for child sex abuse or child sex pornography in some form or other? Is the Attorney-General prepared to review the sentencing of those sorts of cases in terms of the sentences that are available?

My hon. Friend can be reassured that most of those cases will be referable and, indeed, I have referred such cases to the Court of Appeal. I am afraid that I cannot give him the statistics at the Dispatch Box but I will write to him with the statistics for the last 12 months.

As the Attorney-General has said, there are a number of very serious cases that cannot be referred. He says that that is a matter for Parliament. But will he take the initiative and start a consultation, allowing Members to put forward their views as to which offences should be subject to these reviews?

As the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, other offences have been added to the specified offences. In August 2012, we added trafficking people for exploitation. In May 2006, various offences under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, to which we have just referred, were added. Of course that is possible but, as I said in my first answer, we need to balance the need for finality and the need not to end up with a system where the Court of Appeal becomes the sentencing court for almost all offences. But if the right hon. Gentleman has examples that he feels need to be considered, I strongly urge him to write either to me or to my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and those can undoubtedly be considered.