Amendment 113

Victims and Prisoners Bill - Committee (4th Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 8:30 pm on 7 February 2024.

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Lord Sandhurst:

Moved by Lord Sandhurst

113: After Clause 27, insert the following new Clause—“Duty to inform victims and families of the unduly lenient sentencing schemeAfter section 36 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, insert—“36A Duty to inform victims and families of the unduly lenient sentencing scheme(1) The Secretary of State must nominate a government department to inform victims and their families of their rights set out in section 36 (reviews of sentencing).(2) The information provided under subsection (1) must include the type of sentence and the time limit for application, and advise that applications must be made to the Attorney General.””Member's explanatory statementThis amendment will ensure that victims are aware of the Unduly Lenient Sentencing scheme which presently has a strict 28-day timeframe in which to apply, there being no power to extend the time.

Photo of Lord Sandhurst Lord Sandhurst Conservative

My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 113 and 114. Amendment 113 seeks to impose a duty to inform victims and families of the right to refer an unduly lenient sentence. Amendment 114 seeks to extend the time, in exceptional circumstances, for such a reference. I begin by declaring my interest as a member of the Justice and Home Affairs Committee.

Currently, the position is that victims have a strict 28-day time limit from the day of passing sentence to make an application under the scheme. The right is simply to have the case considered by the law officers within the Attorney-General’s Office. It is that office which decides whether to take it to the Court of Appeal as an unduly lenient sentence.

The victim, or family, if they are to make use of this, must know in good time of: first, the right to refer; secondly, the time limit for doing so; thirdly, the date when the sentence will be passed, which they have to know in advance; and, fourthly, the sentence itself, if the victim was not present, for whatever reason. At this point, I refer to the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, who signed this amendment, and who had hoped to be here but has had to leave. As she said very succinctly to me, there is no point in having an unduly lenient sentence regime if victims do not know about it. That is where we are.

Importantly in this context, the 28-day limit is not open to extension, even in special or exceptional circumstances. That is the point of my second amendment. I am informed by Claire Waxman, the Victims’ Commissioner for London, that victims do not always attend sentencing, and often do not receive communication of the fact that they can refer a matter as an unduly lenient sentence or that they have to do so promptly. Of course, offenders can appeal their sentence outside the 28-day time limit, which is on paper there, if they show good cause. There is a statutory exception for them.

However, the revised victims’ code now includes an obligation for witness care units to highlight the scheme to victims, at the same time as informing them of the sentence in their case. That might be a good thing, but it does not go far enough, because witness care units engage only with victims who are witnesses in the court case. This will not apply to a proportion of victims, including bereaved family members. There is no organisation which currently has the responsibility for informing those victims.

In the debate on earlier amendments about training and so on, when I addressed this Committee the other day, I showed that many victims are unaware of the code, unaware of its contents and not kept abreast of their rights. Someone has got to grip this point as well, and make victims aware of their right to refer to the Attorney-General their dissatisfaction with a sentence. They especially have to be informed of the 28-day time limit. They have to know when sentence will be passed and, if not present, what was said.

Let me give a rather stark example of an unfairness that has happened. Alex Belfield received a five and a half-year prison sentence for a campaign of stalking various employees of the BBC. Claire Waxman personally referred that sentence to the Attorney-General’s Office. She considered it to be unduly lenient. A response was received several weeks later that explained that the case had been referred back to the CPS, which had requested the matter to be relisted in the Crown Court under the slip rule. The judge had looked at it again; he agreed that he had erred in his approach to sentencing, but he declined to change it; so that sentence stood. The CPS explained that the time limit for referral to the Court of Appeal had, however, now passed. So the Attorney-General’s Office could not refer this case under the ULS scheme, despite the initial reference having been made in time. It had been made in time to the CPS, but it had not referred it on because the CPS had taken the slip rule route. A possibly—and I do not say it was—lenient sentence, therefore, which might have been referred, stood.

The witness care unit, as I said, does not address non-witnesses. Others also might have reasons for being late. The information for victims given on the CPS website does make reference to the unduly lenient sentence scheme, but it is in there among a lot of other information. It still requires a victim to be proactive, to know that there might be something worth looking for, to think about it, and then to know where to look. That is not really a very satisfactory state of affairs. Something must be done. Making reference to a scheme in materials is very different to actually informing a victim. The witness care unit does not reach all victims, as I have explained. More must be done.

As for the power to extend time, it should be only in exceptional circumstances. I do not ask for anything different, so it is not going to create an open-ended time limit for appeal. The Attorney-General’s Office is the office that decides whether to take it to the Court of Appeal, so it acts as a filter. It will filter out at once all silly and unreasonable applications. If the amendment is granted, the discretion to consider reasons for lateness—whether they are exceptional and so on—remains with the Attorney-General. The Attorney-General is not going to start wading through large numbers of late references. The statutory guidance produced alongside such legislation could provide guidance on what circumstances might be treated as exceptional. Properly managed, therefore, there will not be unfair uncertainty for convicted prisoners who think they got a sentence of a particular length and suddenly are caught by surprise five years later.

Currently, offenders have 28 days to appeal their own sentence, but they have a right to apply to extend that time limit, which in the right circumstances may be granted, in order to appeal. This amendment, therefore, seeks to give some level of parity between the rights of the victim and the rights of the convicted defendant. I commend these amendments; information of rights is essential and power to extend time is only fair. There should be a measure of parity between victims and convicted defendants. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I signed this amendment, and it is a rerun for me, as I had similar amendments in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Most of the arguments that the noble Lord, Lord Sandhurst, has put forward responded to what the Minister said from the Dispatch Box during the passage of that Bill. These two amendments have been tightened to focus on the real areas of concern. One is not just to inform victims, but also their families; the second is to ensure that the time limit in exceptional circumstances could be extended.

Prior to laying previous amendments, I met Tracey Hanson, whose son Josh Hanson was murdered in 2015. After her son’s killer was sentenced in 2019, no agency made her aware that she was able to appeal the sentence under the ULS scheme. It was only when she approached Claire Waxman, the London Victims’ Commissioner, on the 28th day following the sentencing, that she was made aware of the scheme. Nobody in the system connected with the case contacted her. She was family, obviously not the victim. She submitted her application to the Attorney-General’s Office on the 28th day—that same day—at 8.40 pm. However, this was rejected because it was outside of court hours. At the time, there was no mention of office hours or court hours within the victims’ code or on the Government’s website. Tracey has campaigned for reforms to the unduly lenient sentence scheme, asking for the 28-day time limit to be given flexibility in certain circumstances, such as when the victim or their family is not informed of the scheme. She asked that the scheme be referenced in the judge’s sentencing remarks.

It is worth noting, though, that this still requires statutory responsibility for an agency to communicate those remarks to the victim. Can the Minister respond again—it was not him before; it was his predecessor—to see how we can smooth the journey for victims and families as they go through the judicial process? This particular case is really egregious in having an inflexible time limit for victims and families and yet a flexible one for convicted offenders.

Photo of Lord Garnier Lord Garnier Conservative

My Lords, I do not want to take much time. I understand, and indeed sympathise with, the thrust of the remarks of my noble friend and the intention behind his amendment. I am sure it is a good idea for people to know about the unduly lenient sentence scheme, particularly if they are victims. In my experience as a law officer who had to deal with these when I was in office, there did not seem to be any lack of knowledge among the people affected by what they thought were unduly lenient sentences, and we had plenty of applications to us in the law officers’ department to consider them. I say in brackets that, as often as not, not every crime or offence qualifies to come within the scheme. A degree of education needs to be made available in order that the public should realise that not every offence that they read about in the newspapers comes within the unduly lenient sentence scheme.

The other point that needs to be got across to people is that “unduly lenient” does not mean that the victim, the member of the public, or the reader of the newspaper who reads a report of the conviction and sentencing of a defendant, would have sentenced the person to a higher sentence. There has to be, essentially, a gross error, where the judge takes the sentence outside the sentencing guidelines unreasonably or without providing a reason—sometimes there is a good reason for taking a case outside the sentencing guidelines. I would not want my noble friend to think that, by making sure that there is greater publicity about the unduly lenient sentence scheme, it will necessarily solve the problem of people thinking that sentences for this particular offence are not high enough.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Liberal Democrat 8:45, 7 February 2024

Part of the object of the amendments is to ensure that the scheme is published and explained. That is one of the reasons why there is a reference to making sure that, in the judge’s sentencing, he or she refers to the scheme, and then victims and families can be provided with information as they leave the court, or it can be sent to them if they are not there.

Photo of Lord Garnier Lord Garnier Conservative

I cannot quite see the wording that the noble Baroness refers to, but I am not sure I think it a good idea for a judge, having promulgated a sentence, then to say, “If anyone doesn’t think I’ve given them enough, perhaps you’d like to complain”. The judge must make his or her own mind up, based on the information in front of them, and do justice in that particular case. If the prosecutor, a witness, the victim or a member of the public wishes to say that that is unduly lenient, they can write to the law officers and see what their consideration of the matter is.

I agree with publicity and with educating everybody about what the system is about. However, I do not agree with encouraging everybody to run to their Member of Parliament, the newspapers or the law officers because they wish the sentence had been different. That way leads to disappointment, quite apart from a bureaucratic mess in the law officers’ department—which is a very small department.

Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I raise an issue with regard to the time limit. It is not from the wording of the amendment, which I support, but the wording in the victims’ code. At the moment it says that, first:

“The Attorney General must consider the matter as soon as possible”.

What does that mean? Secondly, it says that they must do so

“no later than the 28th calendar day after the sentence was imposed … in business hours and”—

I emphasise this—

“with sufficient time for consideration”.

How can the victim know how long the Attorney-General needs before the 28 days runs out? It is a hard cut-off, but with something rather woolly leading up to it. The victims’ code could do with a little revision to make it quite clear, in addition to the points that my noble friend has made and the very tough example that she gave, just how this would operate. I would not know, to meet that condition, how long before the end of the 28 days I should get a note through the Attorney-General’s door.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Chair, Consolidation, &c., Bills (Joint Committee), Chair, Consolidation, &c., Bills (Joint Committee), Chair, Arbitration Bill [HL] Special Public Bill Committee, Chair, Arbitration Bill [HL] Special Public Bill Committee

My Lords, I support the principle put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Sandhurst, that there should be proper information provided to victims. This should be proper in the widest sense, so that they fully understand; we do not want disappointment and secondary victimisation. The whole question of time limits and extending them is not a suitable matter for debate at this hour of the night. What is important is the principle.

Photo of Baroness Newlove Baroness Newlove Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, I have noticed the time as well, and the points that I was going to raise have already been made. I will talk about how it feels, as a victim in a murder trial, to hear, after sentencing, all these professionals say that the offenders, who have been found guilty and sentenced, will now appeal their convictions and sentences. But nothing goes in, and the clock is ticking.

When we are looking at extending times and providing information, we are talking about an area that we all know about to a degree, but the victim does not understand unduly lenient sentencing. It is actually the media that leads the way. I think we need to look at this again. We now have flexible working hours, so who is going to pick up the inbox if nobody is in until the next day? We need to be more creative in how we do this. To tell the victim, such as Tracey Hanson, that they are out of time is not a fair and level playing field. If the offender has a legal advocate to do all the paperwork, and does not have to lift a finger, maybe we need a legal advocate to help the victim understand. We can say that people should go on the website and read this, that and the other, but they are traumatised and still trying to get their heads around what they have just listened to in court.

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, I apologise for the previous explosion from my phone—I was just making sure that you are all paying attention.

This is one of those groups—we have already had a couple of such occasions during this Committee—where you look at it and think, goodness me, why is that not happening already? Why is that not being done, when it is so obvious that it should happen? Like in many of the other cases, it comes down to the question of whose responsibility it is to make sure that the victim is properly informed, and their family properly supported, to know what is going on. It would be great if the Minister could tell us what the answer to that question is, as it is kind of at the heart of everything we have been discussing so far. I look forward to hearing the answer.

Photo of Lord Roborough Lord Roborough Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Sandhurst for Amendment 113, in relation to the unduly lenient sentence scheme. It seeks to ensure victims and their families are given the necessary information about the scheme and, where this does not happen, provide for an extension of the relevant deadline. I understand the distress that victims may feel if they believe that the sentence given to an offender is not sufficient. The unduly lenient sentence scheme provides a way to ensure that victims, their families and members of the public can request for sentences for certain serious crimes to be challenged, by asking the Attorney-General to consider making an application to the Court of Appeal for a sentence to be reviewed.

Amendment 114 seeks to allow extension of the time limits for applications under the scheme, which must currently be made within 28 days of sentencing. However, the scheme has a fixed time limit to reflect the importance of finality in sentencing for both the victim and the offender. Although we will keep this this limit under consideration, there are no current plans to remove the certainty of this absolute time limit. The 28-day time limit reflects similar constraints on defendants appealing against conviction or sentence; it is important for both victims and offenders that we avoid ongoing uncertainty about the sentence to be served.

Amendment 113 puts forward a duty to inform victims and families of the scheme. It might reassure my noble friend to know that the current victims’ code is already clear that victims should be informed about the scheme by the police’s witness care units at the same time as they are told about the sentence; this is expected to be done within six days of sentencing. It may also help if I explain that “witness care unit” is the generic name for a police-led function that provides information and support to victims, as well as witnesses, in cases progressing through the criminal justice system. Under the victims’ code, the witness care unit is responsible for providing services to victims who are not witnesses in the trial, as well as those who are.

For example, under right 9 in the code, all victims are entitled to be told at the end of the case the outcome, including a brief summary of reasons for the decision where available. This also includes telling victims about the ULS scheme when they are told the sentence in the case, which is in paragraph 9.6 of the code. It is heartening to hear from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, that the scheme is well used, despite examples of where it has not worked being given by others in this short debate.

In answer to the noble Lady Baronesses, Lady Brinton and Lady Thornton, as part of the CPS’s bereaved family scheme, the CPS and the trial advocate will meet the family at the court following the sentence to explain it and answer any questions. The scheme will be highlighted in appropriate cases as part of this.

My noble friend Lord Sandhurst raised an unfortunate case in which consideration under the slip rule means that 28 days had elapsed. In general, the law officers and the Attorney-General’s Office endeavour to review any sentence referred to them, the only exception being those where there is insufficient time to do so; for example, if it is received late in the day, the statutory time limit runs out. In those cases where the slip rule applies, CPS guidance instructs prosecutors to apply for the sentence to be corrected under the slip rule quickly and within the 28-day period for the ULS scheme. This means that, if the application is unsuccessful, the Attorney-General is not time-barred from being able to make an application under the ULS scheme within the 28-day period.

Where there seems to be broad consensus in this debate is on the need to do better on informing victims and their families about their rights under the scheme. This has been brought up by the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton, Lady Hamwee and Lady Newlove. I am open to discussing further with noble Lords how best to ensure that victims are better informed of the scheme and its deadline, but I respectfully ask that my noble friend withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Chair, Consolidation, &c., Bills (Joint Committee), Chair, Consolidation, &c., Bills (Joint Committee), Chair, Arbitration Bill [HL] Special Public Bill Committee, Chair, Arbitration Bill [HL] Special Public Bill Committee

My Lords, would it be possible for the Minister to find out whether the police keep records of the notification of the witness unit and, if the records are kept, what the statistics reveal? This is really an argument about whether we have the right mechanism, rather than the principle. Obviously, the Minister cannot do that this evening, but if the Ministry of Justice or the Home Office could find out, that would alleviate the problem.

Photo of Lord Roborough Lord Roborough Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

The noble and learned Lord makes a very sensible request, and I will do my best to write to him.

Photo of Lord Sandhurst Lord Sandhurst Conservative

My Lords, I am grateful to various noble Lords for their support, the points that they have made, and, if I may say so, the very sensible suggestion from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, about collecting data.

If I may comment on my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier’s observations, they show that good information is necessary. It is absolutely essential. He says that these are simple and reasonable obligations; in which case, they must be explained to everybody. The guidance should set it out, and it should say simple things such as: “The Attorney-General has only 28 days in which to lodge a reference. If you are minded to complain about the sentence, you must do so straight away so that the Attorney-General has time to consider it properly; otherwise, I am afraid that there is no prospect of a reference being made”—something to that effect.

As for the extension of time, I hear what is said. It will be only in exceptional cases, and it will be the Attorney-General who decides. I just do not see what the problem is. If it is there and remains because the Government do not change it, it is really important that proper information is given.

I am grateful for the answers given by my noble friend Lord Roborough, standing in on short notice and dealing with these rather tricky little points. In the circumstances, having heard what has been said, I will withdraw my amendment. But I really do hope that something can be done, administratively at the very least; that we can receive proper assurances that victims and particularly those who are not witnesses, such as the bereaved and so on, really are told properly; and that a log is kept showing that they have been told—when and where and in what terms. I beg leave to withdraw.

Amendment 113 withdrawn.

Amendments 114 to 119 not moved.

Clause 28: Meaning of “major incident” etc