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 Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Lord Wolfson of Tredegar The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 6:00 pm, 10th November 2021

My Lords, the amendments all refer to the unduly lenient sentence scheme, which is set out in Sections 35 and 36 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. It allows anyone to ask for certain sentences imposed by the Crown Court to be considered by the law officers where the sentence is felt to be unduly lenient. The law officers—it is ultimately their decision, for reasons I will come back to—may then decide to refer the case to the Court of Appeal. Once it gets there, it is a matter for the Court of Appeal to decide whether the sentence should be increased.

I should underline that it is not a right available to anyone to ask the court to reconsider the sentence. The way the system works is that the request is made to the law officers; their role is to ask the court to increase the sentence. That was set out deliberately and rightly in the scheme. We prosecute in this country in the name of the Crown; we do not have, with very few exceptions, private criminal prosecutions. The instances of the scheme going wrong or people not knowing about it, as we have just heard in the cases of Tracey Hanson and the appalling murder of her son Josh, and the terrible attack on Claire in front of her young daughter, are terrible to hear about. One can only imagine the consequences for those families.

I therefore understand the motivation behind Amendment 196A. It is critical that victims, prosecuting authorities and members of the public are aware of the ULS scheme. I heard the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, talk about a lack of clarity. She quite rightly referred to the revised Code of Practice for Victims of Crime, or the victims’ code—I am grateful to her for doing so—which came into force on 1 April this year. It provides victims with the right to be informed about the existence of the scheme and includes, as we heard, a requirement for the witness care unit to inform victims about the scheme promptly when sentencing takes place. In addition, the Crown Prosecution Service references the scheme in its leaflet entitled Information for Victims. There is provision in place to ensure that victims and their families are informed of the scheme.

It is not the case that it is left to victims or bereaved families to contact the law officers. The Crown Prosecution Service can and does make requests directly to the Attorney-General for cases to be referred to the Court of Appeal in instances where the prosecuting authority considers the sentence to be unduly lenient. Those requests are considered by my right honourable and learned friend the Attorney-General in the way that she considers all such requests. While I understand the motivation behind Amendment 196A, I suggest that it is not required.

Amendment 196B, the noble and learned Lord’s second amendment, would create an open-ended time limit for an application for permission by the Attorney-General in certain cases. Again I understand why that is being proposed, but again I do not agree. Of course I acknowledge that here we are dealing with offenders who have sometimes committed very serious crimes, but it is none the less right—and I suggest it is an important principle in the criminal justice system—that an offender should have certainty about the sentence they are to serve. As the ULS scheme is a rare exception to this rule, it is tightly circumscribed, in particular by requiring an application by the law officers to be made to the Court of Appeal no more than 28 days from the date of sentence. That time limit reflects the importance of finality in sentencing. While we will keep—as we already do, and I will come back to this in a moment—the entire ULS scheme under review, including the 28-day time limit, we have no current plans to remove the certainty of an absolute time limit in any circumstances.

Amendment 196C, the third amendment in this group tabled by the noble and learned Lord, proposes a requirement to review and consult on the scope of the scheme on an annual basis. This requirement would be unduly burdensome but, as I said a moment ago, it is also unnecessary because we keep the scheme under review, which has led to action. This Government have extended the scope of the scheme a number of times since 2017 to include terror-related offences, child sexual abuse and other sex offences, stalking and harassment involving violence, and controlling and coercive behaviour. Of course a case may be made for further offences to be added, and we keep the scheme under review. However, I underline the point that, when setting up the scheme, Parliament intended it to be an exceptional power—the debates make this clear—so any decision to extend the scheme would not be straightforward.

Amendment 196D, the final amendment in this group, suggests that the scheme should apply to offences tried in a youth court, to which it does not currently extend. However, the amendment not only extends the application of the scheme to the youth court but applies it to any offence dealt with in that court, however minor that offence was. Although I am sure it was not the noble and learned Lord’s intention and I am not suggesting it was, the effect of the wording—I appreciate we could draft it out—would be to apply the scheme to sentences for offences in the youth court which could not be referred if they had been committed by an adult. I see him nodding. I ought to point that out because we are discussing the scope of amendment.

A youth court can sentence a child to up to two years’ detention only. For all sentences over two years—as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, I think, earlier—a youth case must be passed to the Crown Court. In serious cases, a youth court can decide to send a child to the Crown Court for trial, or a child can be committed to the Crown Court for sentence. Therefore, the ULS scheme already applies to serious youth offences worthy of the greatest scrutiny because those sentences are handed down in the Crown Court where the ULS scheme would be available. That reflects the intention of Parliament when setting up the scheme: that it is reserved for the most serious cases. Therefore, it is not necessary or appropriate to include offences tried in youth courts in the ULS scheme. For those reasons, I invite the noble and learned Lord to withdraw his amendment.