On 27th February 2012 a new guideline came into effect in relation to the sentencing of drug offences in all courts in England and Wales. This guideline joined those already in force for many types of offences including Assault, Burglary, driving offences and sexual offences. So how are sentencing guidelines developed and used and what further guidelines are planned for the future?
To develop a sentencing guideline a body set up by the government, the Sentencing Council, first considers a particular topic for a guideline. The relevant topic can come from the council itself; it could be required by legislation or the council could be asked to consider it by the Lord Chancellor or the Court of Appeal.
Having decided on a topic the Sentencing Council carries out research into it and then forms its preliminary views, following which a consultation paper and a draft guideline is issued to the Lord Chancellor and the House of Commons. The consultation paper and draft guideline are also published and made available on the Sentencing Council website. The usual consultation period is 12 weeks.
The next step is for the consideration to be given to the responses generated by the consultation paper and draft guideline and then to produce a definitive guideline which will become effective in the criminal courts. Finally, the operation and effect of the relevant guideline will be monitored and conclusions drawn which may lead to the amendment and development of the guideline in the future as necessary.
The guidelines are used by judges and magistrates to assist them in determining an appropriate sentence for an offence, ensuring that all relevant factors are taken into account. In simple terms, offences in relation to which there are guidelines are usually divided into three categories of seriousness, depending on culpability and harm, with a starting point and range of sentence for each category. The guidelines also provide the courts with a list of aggravating and mitigating factors which lead to adjustment of sentence within the range within each of the three categories.
By way of a simple example, a category one (the highest category) offence of causing Grievous Bodily Harm has a starting point of three years imprisonment with a range of between thirty months and four years imprisonment.
In addition to the above, sentencing guidelines also deal with the question of reduction in sentence, usually of one third, for an early guilty plea and such things as the making of orders, such as for compensation, which are often made as part of a sentence.
So far as the future is concerned, a consultation on the sentencing of offences involving dangerous dogs is shortly ending so watch this space for news of the definitive guideline in relation to that type of offence.
Whilst sentencing guidelines are designed to be as simple as possible they are not always easy for non-lawyers to understand and anybody who is likely to be sentenced by a court is well advised to seek expert advice from a specialist criminal lawyer who will be familiar with precisely how the guidelines operate in any particular area.