Sentencing Council publishes new guidelines on intimidatory offences and domestic abuse.

Today, the Sentencing Council has published proposed new guidelines for how people convicted of intimidatory offences and offences involving domestic abuse should be sentenced. The intimidatory offences guideline covers harassment, stalking, disclosing private sexual images, controlling or coercive behaviour, and threats to kill.  The domestic abuse guideline covers all offences which occur within a domestic context such as assault, sexual offences or criminal damage.

The Council’s aim in introducing the guidelines, which are now subject to public consultation, is to provide consistent and comprehensive guidance for judges and magistrates in sentencing these related offences.

It marks the first time that guidelines have been produced for stalking, and for the offences of disclosing private sexual images and controlling & coercive behaviour which have both come into force in recent years.

The offence of disclosing private sexual images, commonly known as revenge porn, was introduced in 2015. The guidelines reflect that it is a particularly unpleasant and intrusive offence: any offence of this type can cause very serious distress to the victim. While the offence always involves the intention to cause distress, the guidelines identify some of the factors that make these offences particularly serious. This includes aiming to maximise distress by for example sending images to a victim’s family, or significant planning, such as setting up fake social media profiles to post the images, and inviting comment and contact, which could result in abuse and sexualised contact from strangers.

The offence of controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship also came into force in 2015, aiming to provide better protection to victims experiencing repeated or continuous abuse. Coercive and controlling behaviour can include the abuser preventing their victim from having friendships or hobbies, refusing them access to money and determining many aspects of their everyday life, such as when/what they are allowed to eat, sleep and go to the toilet.

The guideline aims to reflect the nature of such offending and the types of impact the offences can have on victims to ensure an effective and consistent approach to sentencing.

The Council is also introducing a guideline covering stalking and harassment. It is the first time a guideline for stalking has been produced, and sentencing guidance for harassment offences is being expanded significantly to provide comprehensive guidelines. Current guidance for harassment offences, along with that for threats to kill, is very limited and applies only to magistrates’ courts.

In addition to the new guideline on intimidatory offences, the Council is revising the existing guideline covering domestic violence to bring it up to date and reflect the important changes in terminology, expert thinking and societal attitudes over the past ten years in this important area of sentencing. ‘Domestic abuse’ is now the term used, rather than ‘domestic violence’, to reflect that offences may involve physical violence but could also involve psychological, sexual, financial or emotional abuse.

There is no specific offence of domestic abuse – it can be a feature of many offences and the guideline aims to ensure that it is properly taken into account, where relevant, when all such offences are being sentenced.

It brings a distinct change in emphasis in relation to seriousness. Previously, guidelines stated that offences committed in a domestic context should be seen as no less serious than those in a non-domestic context, whereas the new guideline emphasises that the fact an offence took place in a domestic context makes it more serious. This is because domestic abuse is rarely a one-off incident, it is likely to become increasingly frequent and more serious the longer it continues, and may result in death. It can also lead to lasting trauma for victims and their children.

The guidelines recognise that these offences can affect women and men of all backgrounds and remind sentencers to take care to avoid stereotypical assumptions regarding domestic abuse.

While the guidelines in themselves are not expected to have a significant effect on the types or levels of sentence given, they do reflect recent legislative changes that doubled the maximum sentences for stalking and harassment from five years to 10 and from 7 to 14 years for the aggravated form of these offences – that is, when they are racially or religiously aggravated. Offenders falling into the very highest category of seriousness are likely to receive higher sentences as a result of the new legislation which the guidelines reflect.

The Council is now consulting on its proposed guidelines.  It is seeking views on aspects such as the principal factors influencing the seriousness of offences, the structure of the guidelines, and the sentences that should be passed. The 13-week consultation runs until 30 June.

Sentencing Council member Mrs Justice McGowan said: “These offences can be particularly sensitive and distressing, leading to very significant harm to victims. The new guidelines we are proposing will help ensure sentences reflect the seriousness of these offences and take into account the increases in sentence levels for stalking and harassment introduced by Parliament.”