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Unduly Lenient Sentences

Volume 588: debated on Tuesday 18 November 2014

1. What discussions he has had with his ministerial colleagues on the effectiveness of the unduly lenient sentence scheme. (906103)

I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on a range of matters, including the effectiveness of the unduly lenient sentence scheme. In the year to 30 October, the Law Officers considered 362 cases under the scheme and referred 100 offenders to the Court of Appeal. Some 69% of those offenders then had their sentences increased by the court for some of the most serious violent and sexual offences, including murder, rape and sexual assault.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that reply, and welcome the fact that many sentences have been increased. My constituents, however, find many sentences passed by the courts to be far too lenient. It is clearly important to maintain public confidence in the sentencing process, so what other steps does my right hon. and learned Friend intend taking to ensure that that is the case?

Of course, this is a remedy for those exceptional cases where the judiciary pass what are considered by the Court of Appeal to be unduly lenient sentences, and I think it is right that we have that mechanism available to us. I believe that the judiciary generally get it right, but that when they do get it wrong it is important to have a mechanism to correct things.

I raised with the Attorney-General’s predecessor the case of Elena Fanaru, a young woman who was killed by a driver who did not have insurance and got a shockingly lenient sentence. The key is keeping in touch with either the victims or, where they are deceased, the families of the victims. Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman reassure us that that is happening throughout this process?

Yes, I can give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance. As he says, it is important that people affected by offences of this kind have an opportunity to invite the Law Officers to consider the matter. As he will know, not every offence is currently included in the scheme and not every case that is referred to the Law Officers will subsequently be referred to the Court of Appeal, but I think it important that those people have an opportunity to raise their concerns, and that others who have no connection with the case have that opportunity as well. I emphasise again that only in exceptional cases will the matter be taken further.

My constituent Mr Christopher Adams pleaded guilty to three offences of sexual activity with a young woman in my constituency who had the mental age of a child. Although he had pleaded guilty and had been told by the judge that he should expect a lengthy custodial sentence, he actually received only a community order—not even a restraining order to keep him away from the young girl concerned. That case cannot be referred under the unduly lenient sentence scheme because it does not qualify: the system does not consider it a serious enough offence. My constituents feel that it is a serious enough offence. Is it not time that we examined that case and others of its kind with the aim of enabling them to be reviewed if the sentence imposed was not strict enough?

I commend my hon. Friend not just for raising that case today, but for communicating with me about it more than once. He feels very strongly about it, and I understand why: it is clearly a very terrible case. At present, as he will know, the balance is struck between a manageable system that enables us to pass truly exceptional cases to the Court of Appeal and ensuring that people have an opportunity to raise their concerns. I can tell him, however, that I am looking at the unduly lenient sentence scheme again to ensure that its scope is appropriate and that it is coherent and sustainable, and I will take careful note of what he and others have said as I do so.

As the Attorney-General knows, I refer a number of cases to him for appeal against unduly lenient sentences, and I am very grateful to him and to the Solicitor-General for the way in which they consider them. The Solicitor-General has now begun to view the behaviour of offenders after their conviction to establish whether they have gone on to the straight and narrow as a factor in the decision on whether to appeal. On that basis, is it not time that we increased the period during which people can appeal against unduly lenient sentences from 28 days to perhaps double that, so that everyone has more of a clue about the path on which the offender has embarked after he has been sentenced?

That is certainly one of the criteria that are considered, but it is not the only one. Most consideration concerns whether the judge applied the information that was available to the sentencing judge appropriately in determining whether a sentence was unduly lenient.

The issue of the time limit for making a reference under the scheme is a vexed one, and I know that my hon. Friend has raised it before. I think it is important for there to be certainty and a fixed end point, and for defendants to understand clearly that after a fixed period they will know what sentences they will be serving. For that reason, I am not currently minded to extend the time limit, although, as I have said to my hon. Friend, I am considering other aspects of the scheme very carefully.