Amendment 196A

Part of Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill - Committee (7th Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 6:00 pm on 10th November 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health) 6:00 pm, 10th November 2021

My Lords, I am pleased to support the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, on Amendments 196A to 196D, and I thank him for so ably and eloquently presenting the importance of these changes. I am sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, has been unexpectedly called away, but, as your Lordships’ House knows, she was the Victims’ Commissioner, and, through her work with victims, she has asked me to say that she is extremely supportive of this group.

I think that most people are aware of the fundamental right in our justice system to appeal a sentence handed down by a judge. Following a sentence hearing, a convicted offender will meet with their lawyer to discuss what comes next and what their rights are with regard to an appeal. This is a fundamental and correct part of our process, and we should hold it in high regard. But what many are not aware of—and this leads me to the necessity of these amendments—is the unduly lenient sentence scheme, which provides the right for anyone to appeal a sentence. This right is of particular importance to the victims of crime and bereaved family members, and the scheme is recognised as a key entitlement in the victims’ code of practice. Operated by the Attorney General’s Office, it provides this fundamental right, which is an important process for victims and bereaved families and can bring comfort and increased confidence in the justice system.

However, as we heard from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, these rights are not equal in policy or practice, and many victims find themselves learning of their rights by chance, too late or not at all, all of which can have a devastating impact on a victim’s recovery. The scheme, like an offender’s right of appeal, has a time limit of 28 days. This limit provides some assurance for those involved, which we think is important. However, this is where the parity between victim and offender ends, and the amendments tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, would rectify the problem. While offenders are told of their right to appeal almost immediately following the sentencing, we know that many victims are never informed of their rights at all.

I will briefly tell you about someone who has been denied her rights under this scheme. Claire, a loving mother to a young daughter, was stabbed repeatedly and had her throat slashed by her ex-partner. Thankfully, Claire survived this most horrific of attacks, which was carried out in the presence of her daughter. The offender in the case was arrested and charged, and plead guilty to attempted murder earlier this year. He was handed a life sentence but with a minimum term of just eight years. No justice agency told her of the unduly lenient sentence scheme, and it was only while speaking to Tracey Hanson, whom the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, referred to, that she became aware of it. She spoke to the police about it, and they incorrectly told her that she could not appeal due to the offender having received a life sentence.

The problem is the lack of clarity about this scheme, and the lack of responsibility for telling a victim meant that Claire was unable to request that the sentence be appealed within the 28 days. And so the man who slashed her throat her in front of her young daughter may be released in as little as eight years. We must stop failing victims who bravely come forward to bring offenders to justice and whom we repay with this appalling treatment and injustice.

The revised victims’ code of practice, which came into force in April and codifies the rights and entitlements of victims of crime, assigns this responsibility for informing victims to witness care units. While this is useful and important, it fails to realise that many victims and bereaved family members will have no contact at all with witness care units, leaving many still unaware of their rights. So we must ensure that victims and bereaved families are informed in good time after sentencing, because it is absolutely vital that they are able to use their right to appeal if they so want.

These amendments also seek that the Secretary of State conduct a review of eligibility under the scheme, opening up the possibility of including further serious offences, with the aim of delivering this vital right to more people. Gareth Johnson, MP for Dartford, speaking in the other place, talked passionately of the experience of his constituents: the family of Gemma Robinson, who was brutally beaten by her partner, who was the subject of a restraining order following a previous assault against her. Following this, her partner was arrested and charged with Section 18—grievous bodily harm—an offence recognised under this scheme. Tragically, Ms Robinson took her own life prior to his appearance in court and the charge was reduced to Section 20, malicious wounding. This offence, as it stands, is ineligible for the unduly lenient sentence scheme, so Ms Robinson’s family could do nothing as a sentence of just 3.5 years was handed down.

I thank the London victims’ commissioner, Claire Waxman, and her office for their tireless work in pushing for reform to the unduly lenient sentence scheme. I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, for tabling these amendments and making the possibility of reform a reality. I urge the Minister to support this amendment, not just for those whom the system has failed but for those whom it can stand to benefit in future—those victims and families who feel that in their case justice was not done.