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Gareth Johnson MP: Let's balance the scales of justice

JOHNSON GARETHGareth Johnson is the Member of Parliament for Dartford.

This week I am presenting my Ten Minute Rule Bill to the House.  It is entitled “Unduly Lenient Sentences (Right of Appeal) Bill”.  It seeks to tackle one of the most unjust aspects of the entire Criminal Justice System.  The purpose of the Bill is to redress the inequality of the defence being able to appeal against any sentence and yet, in the vast majority of cases, the prosecution are prevented from appealing.

Currently the prosecution is unable to appeal any sentence imposed by the courts except for a small number of the most serious offences. It cannot appeal against any sentence imposed at the Magistrates Court or Youth Court, nor can it appeal against most sentences imposed at the Crown Court. The defence, however, can appeal against any sentence imposed at the Magistrates and Youth Court automatically and through ‘Leave of a Judge’ against any sentence imposed at the Crown Court.

This system should exist to protect victims and their families and yet, if a sentence given to a defendant in a Magistrates Court or Youth Court is felt to be too lenient by the victim or the prosecutor there is absolutely nothing that can be done. Similarly for most cases dealt with at the Crown Court.

In certain circumstances Magistrates have powers to sentence up to 1 year and they have the ability to sentence for many serious offences including dangerous driving, burglary, affray, ABH and malicious wounding.  In a Youth Court, Magistrates have powers to sentence up to two years youth detention and so can deal with more serious offences such as rape.  It is commonplace for Sexual Assaults to remain in the Youth Court. It is also commonplace for robberies, offences against children and supplying drugs to remain there.  Yet there is no power at all for the prosecution to appeal if an unduly lenient sentence is imposed. What message does a lenient sentence send to a victim of crime when that victim is a child or young person themselves? If there is no recourse for the prosecution to appeal a lenient sentence given to a person in a Youth Court, what does it say to the victim about the fairness of the system; a system we want our children and young people to grow up to respect. There are currently many numbers of offences under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 which cannot be appealed against by the prosecution over the sentence given to a defendant. These include sexual offences committed on those with mental disorders and those committed by a person in a position of trust, such as a care worker or youth worker.

In addition, sentences cannot be appealed when given for the following offences; Affray, Violent Disorder, Theft, Burglary (including dwellings), Fraud, Deception, Assault (Actual Bodily Harm), possession of drugs, witness intimidation, dangerous driving, causing death by careless driving, possession of a knife and possession of an offensive weapon. Also sentences for offences in relation to the possession of and distribution of child pornography cannot currently be appealed by the prosecution.

The fact that the defence can appeal against a sentence imposed for these offences, yet the prosecution cannot, is simply not right. The whole ethos of our Criminal Justice System is that the scales of justice should balance, yet clearly they do not. There is no equality of arms for sentencing in our Court system. This is why I am introducing my Bill. It is surely obvious that both the prosecution and defence should have similar powers of appeal against sentences yet this is not currently the case.

It is my belief that our current appeals procedure inherently favours the rights of the offender over the rights of the victim. It also allows the Courts, when dealing with certain offences, to be as lenient as they like without redress, yet subject to appeal if they are robust. It shouldn’t be surprising therefore that the Courts can spiral into a culture of leniency.

By way of example, in 2010 three males were handed community service orders and three-month curfews as ‘an intensive alternative to custody’ for the assault on a 17 year old boy with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. Whilst using their mobile telephone to film the assault, they kicked and stamped on his head, repeatedly punched him in the chest, beat him with a tennis racket, scratched his arms and legs with sandpaper, threw him down a steep hill, pelted him with dog mess and forced him to drink alcohol until he passed out.

The Attorney General’s office revealed that it had received a large number of requests asking the Law Officers to refer the sentences in that case to the Court of Appeal as possibly unduly lenient but could not as Actual Bodily Harm (for which the males had been convicted) was not one of the offences capable of being referred for appeal.

If the cornerstone of the Justice System is "Justice being seen to be done", it cannot favour a defendant over a victim. It is my belief that the current system does just that.

This is why I will be presenting my Ten Minute Rule Bill to the House of Commons. The short title of the Bill is "Unduly Lenient Sentences (Right of Appeal) Bill". The purpose of the Bill is to allow the prosecution or another concerned party, such as a victim, to refer a sentence received by a defendant for any case, in any Court, to the Attorney General for consideration as to whether a formal appeal should be lodged. This would level the playing field and mean that a victim had the same rights as a defendant. Surely that is what a balanced, fair, judicial system is all about.


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