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Rehman Chishti MP: Why I agree with tough sentences for rioters

Chishti Rehman MP PortraitRehman Chishti is the Member of Parliament for Gillingham and Rainham.

Having practised as a Barrister both prosecuting and defending at all levels from the magistrates to the Court of Appeal, I very much welcome the firm sentences imposed by the judiciary on anyone convicted of offences related to the recent public order offences across the country.

It has been said by some that some of the sentences that have been imposed are too harsh and contrary to sentencing guidelines. I beg to differ in a case in which I appeared as counsel in the Court of Appeal on an Attorney Generals Reference No 20 of 2005. [2005] All ER (D) 359 (Jun). The Court of Appeal stated that Sentencing guidelines, even where clear principles were indicated, were not intended to deprive the sentencing judge of the opportunity where he considered it appropriate to take exceptional course in a particular case.

The recent public order offences we have seen across the country are not day-to-day events - they are exceptional in the scale and nature in which they occurred. In light of these exceptional circumstances, judges can depart from sentencing guidelines if they think it appropriate, in sentencing all level of offences.

Equally, section 125 (1) (a) of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 provides for this judicial discretion, away from guidelines, which in essence states: follow guidelines unless the court is satisfied that to follow the guideline would be contrary to the interests of justice.

With regard to mention of the severity of the sentence in the case of an offender who was sentenced to 5 months custody for handling stolen shorts to the value of £50, I accept in normal day-to-day events handling stolen goods to that value would not have attracted such a sentence. However, if the offender knew the stolen item came from the riots, which are the exceptional circumstances, then in my view the judge was right to impose such a custodial sentence.

Secondly, judges must install public confidence in the legal justice system; in light of this it is absolutely right and proper to impose such a sentence. My constituents in Gillingham were directly affected by these incidents, where a few youths had come to the area and tried to set some businesses alight - they did not succeed, due to the excellent work of the local police in detecting, preventing and apprehending them within 24 hours and having them before the magistrates. I ask myself - would my constituents want firm sentences handed out to anyone involved in trying to destroy our community and/or endanger people’s lives or prevent them from going by their day to day activities, which would be a complete breach of their fundamental freedoms. In light of this, and from the people who I have spoken to in my constituency, they welcome the firm sentences that have been meted out by our judges in light of the facts and exceptional circumstances before them.

Thirdly, sentences are imposed for public deterrence reasons. This is a long practise in our legal system. I refer to the case of R v Chapman  [2002] EWCA Crim 2346, in which it states: where offences of violent disorder are committed in the context of wider public disorder, it is appropriate to pass a deterrent sentence.

If an offender is not happy with their sentence then they can appeal it at the Court of Appeal if they feel it is manifestly excessive. In my view, the Court of Appeal in due course may take a sample of these sentences, from across the range of offences, and give its guidance. I would also urge the Attorney General to look at all the sentences and if any are deemed to be unduly lenient, where the person may have been a youth, he should also refer those cases to the Court of Appeal to have them increased.

The final point I want to conclude with is that we have an independent judiciary, and from my experience of having appeared before them as counsel prior to entering parliament, in my view we have one of the finest judiciaries in world, who are appointed on merit, and we should respect their decisions, and the use of judicial discretion in exceptional circumstances when having heard all the evidence.


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