User testing of the sentencing guidelines: Part 2 - Summary

1. Summary


The Sentencing Council for England and Wales (‘the Council’) was set up as an independent, non-departmental public body by the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. The Council’s main overarching objectives are to: promote a clear, fair and consistent approach to sentencing; produce analysis and research on sentencing; and work to improve public confidence in sentencing.

The sentencing guidelines are a cornerstone of the Council’s aim to promote a clear, fair, and consistent approach to sentencing. The guidelines provide information to sentencers about factors which may affect a sentence. They set out different levels of sentence based on the harm caused to the victim and how blameworthy the offender is (referred to in the guidelines as ‘culpability’). The guidelines encourage a consistent approach to sentencing by guiding sentencers through a clearly structured step-by-step process, whilst still allowing for judicial discretion. Section 59 of the Sentencing Code states that courts must follow any relevant sentencing guidelines, unless it is contrary to the interests of justice to do so.

From the time they were first published by the Sentencing Guidelines Council in 2004, sentencing guidelines were distributed to sentencers in hard copy. However, since 2015, the Council has been publishing the guidelines digitally on its website. By November 2018, all existing sentencing guidelines were published in this way and hard copies were no longer available. However, prior to 2022, no formal research project had been undertaken to understand the usability of these digital guidelines.

The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) was therefore commissioned by the Council to explore how sentencers access, navigate and use the guidelines on the Council’s website and whether this could be improved. Through user-testing research, the Council will gain a better understanding of whether its digitally published guidelines are easily accessible and usable to sentencers. 

This project focused specifically on the sentencing guidelines listed on the Council’s website for the magistrates’ court and Crown Court (‘the guidelines’), rather than any other part of the website. It covered the offence specific and overarching guidelines and did not undertake user testing of the digital tools available within the guidelines (e.g. the fine calculator, pronouncement builder, Sentencing ACE tool, etc.). Additionally, it explored the usability of the guidelines as accessed via a laptop, rather than through other devices (given that sentencers commonly use laptops to access the guidelines – see ‘User testing survey analysis – how do guideline users use and interact with the Sentencing Council’s website? Part 1’).


Three research activities were undertaken to explore how different sentencers engaged with guidelines on the Council’s website:

  1. In-person observations
    Nine magistrates (formed in groups of three to reflect the fact that magistrates’ ‘benches’ are typically comprised of three magistrates) were observed in-person engaging with the sentencing guidelines on the Council’s website, whilst making mock sentencing decisions based on paper-based mock scenarios.
  2. Virtual usability testing
    Researchers observed 17 sentencers (nine magistrates, eight judges) interacting with the digital guidelines whilst undertaking mock sentencing exercises online, and completing tasks related to using the guidelines. Sentencers shared their screen with researchers to demonstrate their interaction with the guidelines.
  3. Semi-structured interviews
    Researchers interviewed 13 sentencers (10 magistrates, three judges) to gain feedback on their experiences of using and navigating the sentencing guidelines. Of these 13 sentencers, four had also taken part in virtual usability testing sessions. This included exploring what works well and what could be improved about the guidelines.

Overall, a sample of 35 unique sentencers were involved across these three research activities. This covered 26 magistrates, seven circuit judges, one district judge and one deputy district judge. There were four interview participants who were involved in both virtual usability testing sessions and interviews (two magistrates, one deputy district judge and one circuit judge).

Researchers carried out virtual usability testing and in-person observation sessions across December 2022 and January 2023, with interviews held in January 2023.

Recruitment for all three research activities relied on participants opting into the activities. It is acknowledged that this self-selection approach could have introduced bias into the sample. The small purposive sample included here means that findings are indicative only.

Findings and recommendations

Sentencers were generally positive about the guidelines. They valued the layout of offence specific guidelines and reported that having a consistent step-by-step structure made it easy to understand relevant sentencing information for different offences. Sentencers also liked knowing the digital guidelines on the Council’s website would be the most up-to-date version.

When sitting on a bench, not all magistrates referred to the guidelines as there might only be one magistrate who would look up information on the guidelines, and relay this to other magistrates. However, this was not a consistent practice and sometimes all magistrates on the bench might look up the guidelines.

Both magistrates and judges primarily referred to steps 1 and 2 of offence specific guidelines when making sentencing decisions. Sentencers noted they may not refer to steps three to nine in the offence specific guidelines for each sentencing decision – as they felt they could appropriately apply these steps from memory, based on their familiarity with the offence and the offence specific guidelines.

Sentencers’ confidence in digital literacy impacted on their experience with the guidelines. Individuals with self-reported lower levels of digital literacy were observed experiencing more barriers to interacting with the guidelines (e.g. having difficulty quickly looking between different guidelines when this was needed). Whilst the majority of sentencers who participated in virtual usability testing and interviews self-reported being confident using technology, the degree of digital literacy demonstrated by sentencers during research sessions was quite varied.

Sentencers typically accessed the guidelines through shortcuts available on court laptops. They also stated sometimes using more than one device (such as an additional laptop, iPad, or phone) to look at both the guidelines and case information at the same time.

Difficulty using the search functionality on the offence specific guideline pages was a major theme which was consistently raised by sentencers across all research activities. Other issues included some difficulties in navigating to different guidelines when they were needing to refer to more than one guideline, and navigating to related resources on the Council’s website (e.g. different types of explanatory materials and Bench Books). Some sentencers raised that the way certain information is presented in the guidelines could be refined to better support their decision making. This included being able to more easily navigate to different sections within offence specific and overarching guidelines, making it clearer whether the aggravating and mitigating factors within offence specific guidelines contained expanded explanations (i.e. additional information when clicked on), and making it clearer which starting point and category range tables sentencers were viewing (when offence specific guidelines contained multiple starting point and category range tables).

Recommendations were rated by BIT in terms of priority of implementation (high, medium, or low), based on the impact these changes will have on the usability of the guidelines for sentencers.

A summary of the findings and recommendations based on the research questions for this project, is presented below.

A. How easy is it for sentencers to use the guidelines with the current search functionality?

Finding A1: There are two search bars available on the Council’s website, a site search bar (which searches content across the entire website) and a search bar on the offence specific guidelines search pages (which only searches for offence specific guidelines). Sentencers use the search bar on the offence specific guidelines search pages to find certain guidelines. However, this search bar is not intuitive or easy to use, which takes up sentencers’ time. Sentencers had difficulty finding offence specific guidelines, which often required multiple search attempts using different search terms.

Improve the search functionality for offence specific guidelines to provide a greater ‘smart searching’ capability. This should provide additional search results based on words and phrases related to the search term and partial matches of search terms. For example, returning all offences with the word ‘driving’ in the title, based on the search term ‘drive.’ (Priority: high)

Finding A2: Search results for offence specific guidelines are not presented intuitively, which makes it harder to find them. Whilst search results are presented in alphabetical order of offence name, this was not clear to sentencers who generally expected search results to be listed in order of relevance to their search term. This made it harder for sentencers to identify relevant guidelines from search results.

Refine the order of search results to be presented in order of relevance, and refine the layout of search results so sentencers can more easily identify relevant offence specific guidelines. Search results should highlight text related to the search terms, as well as tools to sort and filter search results. (Priority: high)

Finding A3: When attending court, sentencers are provided with court listings (a digital or paper document which informs sentencers which cases they will be hearing, including the offences these cases involve). However, the names of offences in sentencers’ court listings, do not always match the name of the offence specific guidelines on the Council’s website.

Provide an easy way to locate the correct offence specific guidelines, from the offence names noted in sentencers’ court listings. Names of offences within court listings should be aligned with the names of offences listed on offence specific guidelines. Ideally, offences in digital court listings should be hyperlinked to the relevant guidelines – though it is acknowledged that digital court listings are provided by platforms administered by HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) and are not the responsibility of the Council. (Priority: high)

Finding A4: The dropdown filter of offence types in the Crown Court guidelines is useful to search for offence specific guidelines, but is not available for the magistrates’ court guidelines.

Recommendation: Provide a dropdown filter of offence types (as in the Crown Court guidelines) for the magistrates’ court guidelines. (Priority: high)

Finding A5: Not all circuit judges were aware of the dropdown filter of offence types on the Crown Court guidelines.

Recommendation: Provide time-limited prompts about this feature on the Crown Court guidelines. This should include text boxes which are visible only for a set period of time and automatically open the first time the guidelines are accessed. Once these boxes are dismissed, they should not be available again (unless sentencers clear their browser history or internet cookies, on their devices). (Priority: low)

Finding A6: Some sentencers try using the search bar in the offence specific guideline search pages to find explanatory materials (e.g. restraining orders) or other sentencing resources (e.g. the Adult Court Bench Book), but currently need to remember this is only available from a different search bar on the Council’s website.

Recommendation: Increase the scope of the search function on the offence specific guideline search pages to include additional sentencing resources on the Council’s website. (Priority: medium)

Finding A7: The guideline search function does not let sentencers know if they are searching for an offence which does not have a guideline, resulting in sentencers being unsure if they are using the search function correctly to locate offence specific guidelines.

Provide text prompts to sentencers in the search results of the offence specific search pages, when searching for offence specific guidelines which may not have been developed. This can make sentencers aware they may be searching for an offence specific guideline which does not currently exist. (Priority: medium)

Finding A8: The spell-check function in the search bar for offence specific guidelines does not consistently indicate spelling errors.

Recommendation: Refine the spell-check function to be consistently visible to sentencers and provide suggestions for correct spelling. (Priority: medium)

B. How easy is it for sentencers to use the guidelines given the current layout and format of the guidelines?

Finding B1: Sentencers generally felt the offence specific and overarching guidelines were well laid out, though felt they could be improved to reduce scrolling back and forth between different sections.

Recommendation: Provide a floating contents table linking to different sections of the guidelines and increase the spacing between different sections of offence specific guidelines. (Priority: high)

Finding B2: Sentencers were not always aware that some aggravating and mitigating factors include expandable boxes with additional information.

Recommendation: Refine the design of aggravating and mitigating factors within offence specific guidelines to be more consistent with how other dropdown functions are generally presented on the website and with other dropdown boxes in the guidelines (e.g. those within offence specific guidelines for applicability, fines, community orders, custodial sentences etc.) (Priority: medium)

Finding B3: Some offence specific guidelines contain multiple starting point and category range tables, which were confusing for sentencers. When looking at these guidelines sentencers did not always know if they were looking at the correct table.

Recommendation: Make it easier to distinguish between the different tables of starting points and category ranges within offence specific guidelines. This includes providing more space between different tables, header rows which remain visible whilst scrolling through a table, and having a contents table within the offence specific guidelines linking to the different tables. (Priority: medium)

C. How easy is it for sentencers to access different guidelines and additional sentencing resources on the Council’s website?

Finding C1: For guidelines in both the magistrates’ court and Crown Court, there is a blue sidebar on the left side of the page. This expandable blue sidebar contains links to other resources available on the Council’s website. While the blue sidebar was a useful shortcut to get to other sentencing resources, it was not always clear to sentencers exactly what resources were available through the sidebar.

Recommendation: Embed the blue sidebar at the top of the guideline pages and clearly label the icons. (Priority: medium)

Finding C2: Not all sentencers are aware of the information available in the explanatory materials linked in the blue sidebar in the magistrates’ court guidelines.

Recommendation: Make the explanatory materials icon in the blue sidebar more obvious and provide awareness on the information it contains. (Priority: medium)

Finding C3: Sentencers did not find it intuitive to locate Bench Books on the Council’s website. Bench Books are resources developed by the Judicial College and provide information on a range of legal procedures (e.g. there is an Equal Treatment Bench Book and an Adult Court Bench Book).

Recommendation: Add an additional label to a separate icon within the blue bar to make it clearer to sentencers that this will link to the Bench Books. (Priority: low)

Finding C4: Some sentencers with lower levels of digital confidence found it difficult to navigate between multiple guidelines and other sentencing resources available on the Council’s website (e.g. overarching guidelines and explanatory materials).

Recommendation: Provide prompts with optional guides, to help sentencers who are less confident in their digital skills better navigate the guidelines. (Priority: Medium)

Finding C5: Some sentencers had difficulty navigating to the table with starting points for compensating physical and mental injuries.

Recommendation: Embed information about compensation within relevant offence specific guidelines. (Priority: low)

D. How do sentencers access the guidelines?

Finding D1: To get to the offence specific guideline search page sentencers generally use shortcuts available on court laptops. Magistrates’ court guidelines have a dedicated homepage as well as the offence specific guidelines search page. Magistrates land on either page, depending on which shortcut or link they are following. This can lead to confusion and difficulties getting to the guideline search pages.

Recommendation:  Work with HMCTS to ensure all shortcuts or links to the magistrates’ guidelines consistently bring sentencers to the offence guideline search page. (Priority: low)

E. How do sentencers use the guidelines when making sentencing decisions?

Finding E1: Sentencers use the content of the offence specific guidelines to inform their decision-making, but don’t always physically look at the guidelines in each case (as they reported they are familiar with the content of these guidelines).

Recommendation: Communicate more directly with sentencers (such as sending email alerts to sentencers) when guidelines are revised, and encourage sentencers to review changes more regularly. (Priority: medium)

Additional findings and suggestions

A high-level review of accessibility standards was also undertaken for offence specific guidelines, using an accessibility checker tool (WAVE). The WAVE tool is designed to identify elements within web pages that might not align with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). The WCAG provides guidance on how information should be published on the internet to be more easily accessible to people with different levels of ability (e.g. visual, learning or physical abilities).

This identified three additional accessibility-related findings. Suggestions to improve these areas are also noted in this report. A summary of these additional findings and suggestions are provided below.

  • Finding 1: Icons and links within guidelines were not always labelled.
    Suggestion: Embed relevant descriptive text for icons within the blue sidebar and the links within the offence specific guidelines pages.
  • Finding 2: Icons within the blue sidebar appear to be smaller than recommended by accessibility standards.
    Suggestion: Increase the size of icons displayed on the guidelines to at least 44×44 pixels (as recommended by accessibility standards).
  • Finding 3: Low colour contrast between text and background colours within sections of text in the offence specific guidelines.
    Suggestion: Increase the colour contrast of text in the offence specific guidelines, to increase accessible visibility.