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Unduly Lenient Sentence Scheme

Volume 711: debated on Thursday 24 March 2022

Since the beginning of 2021, thanks to the referrals made by the Solicitor General and by me, sentences have been increased in more than 100 cases. Recently, I personally argued the case of Stephen Gibbs in the Court of Appeal sitting in Cardiff. I welcomed the decision to increase his sentence for attempted murder from 13 years to 20 years and seven months.

Under the unduly lenient sentence scheme, it is currently only possible to submit a request to increase a sentence for causing death by dangerous driving, but the majority of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities are cases of causing death by careless driving. What is my right hon. and learned Friend doing to protect victims of crime who are not covered by the unduly lenient sentence scheme?

I acknowledge the argument that my hon. Friend makes very energetically. She knows that the unduly lenient sentence scheme is reserved for specific offences in which the offender’s culpability is particularly high. There are no immediate plans to extend the coverage of the scheme, but I am pleased that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, will allow us to take extensive action on road traffic offences, including by increasing the maximum penalty for causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs to life imprisonment.

The Attorney General will be aware of the horrendous case of my constituent Debbie Leitch, who died at the hands of her mother Elaine Clarke, who has since been sentenced to nine years and seven months in prison for her appalling actions. Will my right hon. and learned Friend meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart), following our recent letter, to discuss the case with a view to considering whether the sentence is unduly lenient?

It is indeed a tragic case and I extend my sympathies to all those who knew and loved Debbie. I thank my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) for bringing the case to the attention of the Law Officers. My hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor General has reviewed the sentence imposed with the utmost care and decided to refer it to the Court of Appeal. It is now a matter for the Court to decide whether to increase the sentence.

Does the Attorney General agree that steps need to be taken to give the judiciary the freedom to apply greater sentences without the victim or the family having to present the case again, as is currently required?

The unduly lenient sentence scheme affords the Law Officers an important power. The judiciary generally gets it right in the vast majority of sentencing decisions. In the few instances in which Law Officers, after careful consideration, consider a sentence to be unduly lenient—when there has been an error—the case is referred to senior judges in the Court of Appeal to look at the sentencing exercise and reach their own conclusion.