When the Lord Chief Justice invited me to accept the post of Chairman of the Sentencing Council, I did so enthusiastically.
I believe the Sentencing Council, which has a wider remit than the organisations that came before it, has a significant opportunity to contribute to the practice of sentencing and to the extent to which people understand the outcome of the sentencing process.

The aims

Our work, which started in April, has three important aims:

  • We want to encourage a clear, fair and consistent approach to sentencing offenders wherever their case is heard.
  • We also have a statutory obligation to collect new and substantial evidence on how sentencing guidelines are used and their impact on resources.
  • In addition, we want people to feel confident about sentencing by providing clear information on how judges make sentencing decisions.

Although the sentencing of every offender must be tailored to the circumstances of the case, which can only be done through the individual exercise of judicial discretion, I doubt that anybody could challenge the requirement that there be a consistent approach to sentencing across the country. To that end, the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 (“the 2009 Act”) provides a different starting point for the proper consideration of the guidelines to that prescribed by Criminal Justice Act 2003 (“the 2003 Act”). Under the 2003 Act, judges were required to “have regard to” the guidelines. The 2009 Act now states that judges “must follow” the guidelines, except when it is in the interests of justice not to do so. 

In providing a different starting point for the way judges approach the guidelines, the 2009 Act will strengthen the attention which will be paid to them without constraining individual judicial discretion. It will encourage consistency and will provide the Sentencing Council with a basis to perform its reporting functions, along with a foundation which can be used both to help promote consistency and, I hope, public confidence.

Crown Court survey

Another key element to our work, and a requirement of the legislation under which we were established, is to collect evidence on sentencing. This will help us to engage the public more effectively and to have a more informed discussion about sentencing. We have already started work on the first major survey of its kind to examine the factors which influence sentencing in Crown Courts. The first part, a pilot of four courts, has been completed and will inform the next stage, which will be launched in October in courts in England and Wales. The survey, designed specifically to gather useful data without being an onerous imposition on judges, will be used for all high volume, high impact criminal cases. The results will provide us with new and valuable information to help us assess the use of sentencing guidelines and assess how guidelines impact on resources.

Revising the guidelines

The first guidelines we will be revising are those on assault and guilty pleas. Assault cases are a priority as there were 41,400 assault cases in 2008 alone, and there is evidence that sentencers do not find it easy to fit the factual scenarios of some offences into the current sentencing ranges. Once the approach has been agreed, there will be a full public consultation later this autumn.

We are also looking to revise the guidelines on the Reduction in Sentence for a Guilty Plea, addressing the main current areas of contention – the stage at which the guilty plea is entered and what reduction should be made to a sentence due to an early guilty plea. Whereas I am absolutely clear that improper pressure should never be exerted, I believe that offenders should be encouraged to admit their guilt at the earliest possible stage. This helps victims and witnesses, allows the earliest chance for an offender to show remorse and also saves unnecessary use of police, prosecution and court resources.

Public confidence

Turning to public confidence, we know that people have low levels of confidence in the criminal justice system – according to the British Crime Survey only 24 per cent of people believe the courts are effective at giving punishments which fit the crime.

We are determined to provide clear and accessible information on the current sentencing system and will also be asking people about their views on sentencing. This dialogue will start shortly when we draft and consult on the new sentencing guidelines on assault.

Programme of work

The Sentencing Council has an ambitious and exciting programme of work which clearly cannot be achieved overnight. However, with 14 council members representing all levels of the judiciary along with others who bring expertise from different parts of the criminal justice system and a dedicated office to support them, I believe we can to start to demystify our court processes and increase the confidence of the public in the criminal justice system.

Lord Justice Leveson is the Chairman of the Sentencing Council