Clause 100 amends the criteria applied for when a court may depart from imposing a minimum sentence. Minimum sentences are rare in this jurisdiction, and generally speaking, but not always, they apply to repeat offences. These minimum sentences are not, technically or legally speaking, mandatory or completely binding on the court, but it is mandatory that the court must consider passing that minimum sentence. The court may depart from imposing that minimum sentence only by having regard to the particular circumstances of the offender and the nature of the case, so an element of judicial discretion is retained.
However, given that Parliament has legislated to set out these minimum sentences, we think it right that the court should depart from the minimum sentences specified by Parliament not by having regard to the particular circumstances of the case but only in exceptional circumstances. In effect, the clause raises the bar for when a judge can depart from these minimum sentences; it tells the judge that circumstances must be exceptional before the minimum sentence is disregarded, to make sure that Parliament’s will in this area is better reflected by the sentences the court hands down.
Clause 100 will cover four offences: threatening a person with a weapon or bladed article, which carries a minimum sentence of four years; a third offence in relation to trafficking a class A drug, which carries a minimum sentence of seven years; a third domestic burglary offence, which carries a minimum sentence of three years; and a repeat offence—a second or higher offence—involving a weapon or bladed article. The clause strengthens the minimum sentences in those cases and makes it harder for the judge to depart from the minimum, or reduces the range of circumstances in which such a departure might occur. Three of the four offences are repeat offences; the fourth is a first-time offence. They are fairly clearly defined offences for drug trafficking or domestic burglary, where Parliament clearly decided in the past that there was less necessity for judicial discretion.
Schedule 11 makes consequential amendments to existing legislation as a result of clause 11, to give effect to what we have just discussed. The amendments are to section 37 of the Mental Health Act 1983 and to the Armed Forces Act 2006.
These offences are serious. In the past, Parliament has taken a view that a minimum sentence is appropriate, particularly for repeat offences. It is therefore appropriate that we today make sure that the courts follow Parliament’s view as often as possible.
I asked for figures on how often judges depart from the minimum sentences. For the burglary offence, the data is a couple of years old, but it looks like the court departed from the minimum sentence in that year in about 37% of cases, so in quite a wide range of cases. It is on that basis—to tighten up the strength of minimum sentences—that we are introducing clause 100 and schedule 11 today.