Judges and magistrates across England and Wales hand down sentences to over 1 million offenders a year for criminal offences. To make sure that there is a consistent approach to sentences given to offenders wherever they are, the Sentencing Council produces offence specific guidelines which courts must follow unless it is not in the interest of justice to do so.
Since 2010, the Sentencing Council has produced over 130 guidelines which cover most of the high-volume criminal offences sentenced by courts. However, some offences which are new or less common do not have a guideline.
The Sentencing Council has published the General guideline which will ensure that a structured sentencing process will be followed by all courts for offences that do not have a sentencing guideline.
The new guideline will be supplemented by the newly introduced expanded explanations in offence specific guidelines. The guideline is effective from 1 October 2019 but is available online with an illustrative video.
- What is the purpose of the General guideline?
- The General guideline will be used by judges and magistrates when sentencing offences for which there is no offence specific guideline. It applies to adult offenders and organisations in magistrates’ courts and the Crown Court.
- It is designed to provide guidance for sentencing a wide range of offences with different characteristics and different maximum sentences.
- It will also serve as an overarching guideline for use in conjunction with offence specific guidelines
- It updates and replaces the Seriousness guideline published in 2004 by the Sentencing Guidelines Council as an overarching guideline in a format that is easier to access and brings together current best practice in sentencing.
- Why was the guideline developed?
- The Sentencing Council has produced offence specific guidelines for most of the high-volume criminal offences sentenced by courts. However, some offences do not yet have a guideline, for example Immigration Act offences and Malicious Communications Act offences.
- There are also many different offences that individual sentencers will rarely see and that have no guidelines, for example blackmail, wildlife offences or offences relating to planning regulations.
- What do courts use when there is no offence specific guideline?
- Until the General guideline comes into force on 1 October 2019, courts can continue to use the Seriousness guideline for general guidance on sentencing.
- Both magistrates’ courts and the Crown Court may also use existing guidelines for similar offences as a reference point. In addition, Crown Court judges may refer to relevant judgments from the Court of Appeal.
- What difference will the General guideline make?
- The General guideline will provide judges and magistrates with a clear structure to follow when sentencing offences that do not have a guideline.
- It will also assist defence and prosecution representatives in structuring their submissions to the court.
- The guideline leaves wide discretion to judges and magistrates but aims to ensure that all relevant factors are considered and given appropriate weight in arriving at the final sentence.
- There will be more comprehensive guidance in relation to aggravating and mitigating factors than in the Seriousness guideline. This will make it easier for sentencers to maintain consistency and transparency when sentencing.
- The General guideline will also be used with offence specific sentencing guidelines where some factors are not covered and overarching guidance is required.
- How will the guideline benefit victims?
- In all Sentencing Council guidelines, the seriousness of an offence is first assessed by looking at two main things: the culpability of the offender and the harm caused to the victim(s).
- The structured approach taken in the General guideline ensures that consideration of the harm caused to victims is also central to the sentencing process when sentencing offences for which there is no offence specific guideline.
- The General guideline also draws the court’s attention to relevant considerations of the harm caused, intended or risked in considering aggravating and mitigating factors.
- Why are there no sentence levels in the General guideline?
- The guideline is designed to provide guidance for sentencing a very wide range of offences with very different characteristics and very different maximum sentences, so it cannot specify sentence levels.