16 March 2011
Sentencing Council launches new definitive guideline for assault offences.
Today, the Sentencing Council is publishing a new guideline for judges and magistrates.
It aims to ensure a consistent and proportionate approach to sentencing, with convicted offenders receiving a sentence that reflects both the harm they have caused to their victim and their culpability.
The new guideline, which has been issued following a 12-week public consultation, will come into effect on 13 June. Although primarily aimed at criminal justice professionals, the guideline is specifically designed to be accessible and clear both to victims and to the public.
The guideline covers a wide range of offences of violence, from causing grievous bodily harm with intent to common assault. The intention of the guideline is that sentences for the whole range of assault offences should be proportionate to each other, so that offenders who cause serious harm are punished with substantial prison sentences, but that courts make more use of community sentences for offenders who cause no or very minor injury.
The guideline addresses concerns some judges have expressed about the previous guideline including the view that undue emphasis that has been placed on premeditation in assaults whereas experience reveals that many offences of this type are spontaneous or involve minimum premeditation, such as a fight outside a pub at closing time. By focusing on the fundamental principles of the harm to the victim and the culpability of the offender and reducing the emphasis on premeditation, the new guideline will be more easily applicable to the wide variety of assault cases coming before the courts.
The new format of the guideline also makes it easier for sentencers to identify the most important factors increasing the seriousness of an offence. This includes offences committed against those working in the public sector or providing a service to the public. The broad wording would encompass both those providing vital services to the public, such as emergency services personnel, but also those working, for example, as pub staff and shop workers.
A consultation response document and a resource assessment have been published alongside the guideline. The resource assessment indicates that there is likely to be an increase in sentence lengths for the most serious cases of assault, along with a decrease in the use of custody for offences at the other end of the spectrum where very little, if any, physical harm is caused. These offences include common assault, assaulting a police constable and assault with intent to resist arrest but it must be emphasised that, in every case where even modest injury resulted, the appropriate offence is assault occasioning actual bodily harm, the seriousness of which would be increased if it involved a police officer.
The Council sought views on the draft guideline from as wide an audience as possible. Separate consultation documents were prepared for criminal justice professionals and for the public, and an online questionnaire was also devised, to increase the accessibility of the consultation. The Sentencing Council received nearly 400 responses from judges, magistrates, lawyers, the police, representative bodies and members of the public, and these contributions helped shape the final guideline.
Chairman of the Sentencing Council, Lord Justice Leveson, said:
“This guideline will increase consistency in sentencing and help ensure offenders receive sentences that accurately reflect the harm they have caused their victim and their culpability. Where serious injuries are inflicted, offenders can rightly expect to go to jail, but where very minor or no injuries are caused, sentencers need to apply a proportionate response.
“We held a public consultation, including an online consultation, so that any member of the public – including victims and witnesses – could take part as well as legal professionals.
“We are very grateful to everyone who responded to the consultation and have improved some of the detail of the guideline in response to comments received. The high level and quality of that response has provided insight into a number of issues and, as a result, we have a definitive assault guideline which we believe will be more useful and more effective.”