New guidelines introduce robust approach to sentencing of breaches of court orders

Today, the Sentencing Council has published new guidelines for judges and magistrates for when they are sentencing offenders who have breached court orders. The guidelines provide a clear approach which will mean a tightening up of the way courts deal with offenders who have not complied with a wide range of orders such as suspended sentence orders, community orders, restraining orders and sexual harm prevention orders.

It is the first time there have been comprehensive guidelines setting out a consistent approach for courts to use and they will help ensure that if an offender breaches a court order, sentencers impose appropriate penalties according to the seriousness of the breach.

The guideline includes guidance on sentencing ten different types of breach. The guidelines for breaches of community orders, suspended sentence orders and post sentence supervision will help courts assess the seriousness of any breach by looking at how much the offender has kept to the terms of their order and how deliberate any breach of the order has been. Breaches of community orders and suspended sentence orders may at one end of the scale involve an uncharacteristic breach after good overall compliance and at the other, wilful and persistent non-compliance from the start.

The guidelines will also tighten up courts’ approach to dealing with these breaches. Courts are required to follow guidelines and these guidelines closely reflect legislation and define more clearly appropriate court responses to breaches.

For example, in relation to suspended sentence orders, legislation states that they must be activated – i.e. the offender will be sent to prison – in the event of a breach unless it would be unjust to do so. The guideline gives clearer guidance on this consideration, and offenders will now not get opportunities to avoid their sentence being activated. For activation to be considered to be unjust, there would need to be new and exceptional circumstances – not present at the time the order was imposed – that prevented them from complying with the order. This might involve for example the offender taking on caring for a disabled relative which greatly affects their ability to comply with an unpaid work requirement.

The guideline also covers breaches of orders imposed to prevent particular behaviour or protect individuals or groups from it, such as sexual harm prevention orders and restraining orders. The guidelines prompt courts to look at an offender’s motivation and intention in committing a breach to assess the seriousness of the breach. The guidelines also instruct courts to look at any harm caused, and for the first time in a guideline, the risk of harm being caused.

Including a focus on risk of harm for such breaches helps ensure appropriate sentences are imposed where a breach presents a serious risk of harm to the public, without any actual harm needing to have occurred. This could include for example a sex offender who fails to comply with notification requirements with the intention of evading detection in order to commit further offences.

Sentencing Council member Julian Goose said: “Court orders are there to protect individuals and the wider public from particular types of offending or continuing criminal behaviour by offenders. Making sure that offenders comply with court orders is crucial in reinforcing public confidence in sentencing. Where offenders do not comply, the public have a right to expect that this is properly addressed by the courts. We are giving courts clear guidance on what action should be taken against those offenders who ignore court orders so that they are dealt with robustly and consistently.”

The guideline will come into effect in courts on 1 October 2018.