New sentencing guidelines for magistrates’ courts

Today, new sentencing guidelines have been published that will be used in all magistrates courts in England and Wales.

Magistrates’ courts deal with lower level offences and hear the vast majority of criminal cases that come before the courts. The new guidelines cover the very varied range of offences they handle, including some motoring offences like speeding, animal cruelty and railway fare evasion.

The Sentencing Council is introducing the new guidelines to reflect changes in the law since magistrates’ guidelines were last updated in 2008. For example, the law has changed to give magistrates much greater powers in relation to fines, removing the £5,000 cap and allowing them to give unlimited fines. Since it was established in 2010, the Council has also made changes to the way sentencing guidelines are constructed.

It has introduced a more thorough and sophisticated approach to sentencing, which leads magistrates to assess the seriousness of an offence by looking at both the culpability of the offender and the harm the offending has caused. This approach has been applied to all the new guidelines, which will help to ensure consistency in sentencing in all magistrates courts across all the offences covered.

The main aim of the new guidelines is to help magistrates sentence fairly and proportionately by providing them with a clear, up-to-date set of guidelines that follow the same approach. The new guidelines are not intended to result in significant differences to current sentencing practice but they will bring changes to sentencing for some specific offences. The Council is making these changes following a consultation held in 2016.

For speeding offences, the Council is introducing a new higher penalty for the most serious offenders. This follows calls from respondents to the consultation who said that the previous guidelines did not properly take into account the increase in potential harm that can result as speed above the speed limit increases. The Council has therefore increased the penalty for the top band of seriousness to ensure that there is clear increase in fine level as the seriousness of offending increases. This means fines for these offenders will have a starting point of 150 per cent of weekly income rather than the existing level of 100 per cent of weekly income.

In relation to animal cruelty, the guideline aims to ensure that the most serious cases lead to prison sentences, and that these sentences are of an appropriate length. For the first time, additional aggravating factors of “use of technology to publicise or promote cruelty” and ‘“animal being used in public service or as an assistance dog” are being included, the latter meaning that police dogs or horses are specifically highlighted.

For TV licence payment evasion offences, conditional discharges have been added as a sentencing option within the sentencing range for the lowest level offending.

Sentencing Council member and district judge Richard Williams said: “The magistrates’ courts deal with the vast majority of offenders in England and Wales, so it is essential that the guidelines they use are up to date and help ensure that sentences are applied consistently and effectively. We have listened to the views of magistrates, criminal justice professionals and others with an interest in particular offence types in developing these guidelines. We are grateful to all those who responded to the consultation and helped shape the final versions that will be used in courts.”

Malcolm Richardson, National Chairman of Magistrates Association, commented: “Sentencing is the most important duty of the magistrates’ courts, undertaken on behalf of society. Magistrates give over two million hours to the criminal justice system each year, and it is essential they have effective guidelines to help them give fair and proportionate sentences. These new guidelines will further help ensure the consistent effectiveness of the magistracy, which is shown by the fact that under one per cent of sentences are currently appealed.”

The guidelines will be used to sentence adult offenders in all magistrates’ courts in England and Wales from 24 April.