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5 October 2022

Every day, judges and magistrates preside over cases coming before them in court and, if an offender is found guilty, they use sentencing guidelines to determine what the appropriate sentence should be.

But what if the offender committed more than one offence? What happens then? Do the courts work out the sentence for each individual offence and then add them together? The simple answer is usually no.

At the start of the sentencing process for multiple offences, the judge or magistrate must arrive at the sentence for each offence following the offence specific guideline. If these are sentences of imprisonment, this will result in a number of sentences which, if added together, could lead to the offender serving a disproportionately lengthy sentence in prison.

To help courts reach a just and proportionate sentence in such cases and make sure that all courts approach the sentencing in a consistent way, the Sentencing Council developed the Totality guideline in 2012.

The Totality guideline sets out two types of sentences for multiple offences: concurrent where the sentences are all served at the same time, and consecutive where sentences are served one after the other.

Concurrent sentences

Concurrent sentences are appropriate where offences arise out of the same incident or facts, for example a single incident of dangerous driving resulting in injuries to multiple victims, or where there is a series of offences of the same or similar kind, especially when committed against the same person. This might be, for example, where there are repetitive small thefts from the same person, such as by an employee.

Where concurrent sentences are to be passed, the final sentence should reflect the overall criminality involved taking into account the associated offences. In some cases where there are some offences that are very much less serious, the judge or magistrate may decide that these should have no separate penalty.

Example of a concurrent sentence

An offender is sentenced for five offences all relating to a single incident of driving. The total sentence is 18 weeks’ custody (plus 2 years’ disqualification from driving) made up as follows:

  1. Aggravated vehicle taking – 18 weeks’ custody
  2. Dangerous driving – 18 weeks’ custody (concurrent)
  3. Failing to stop – 6 weeks’ custody (concurrent)
  4. No insurance – no separate penalty
  5. No driving licence – no separate penalty

Consecutive sentences

Consecutive sentences are appropriate where offences arise out of unrelated facts or incidents, for example where the offender commits a theft on one occasion and a common assault against a different victim on a separate occasion, or where one or more offence(s) qualifies for a statutory minimum sentence and concurrent sentences would improperly undermine that minimum.

Consecutive sentences also apply where offences are of the same or similar kind but where the overall criminality will not sufficiently be reflected by concurrent sentences, for example where offences committed are against different people, such as repeated thefts involving attacks on several different shop assistants.

Where consecutive sentences are to be passed, judges and magistrates add up the sentences for each offence and consider if the total length is just and proportionate. If it is not, the court should consider how to reach a just and proportionate sentence.

There are a number of ways in which this can be achieved. The courts should decide whether all the offences can be proportionately reduced, whether a most serious offence can be identified and the less serious ones proportionately reduced, and if there are offences of such low seriousness that they can be recorded as ‘no separate penalty’.

Example of a consecutive sentence

An offender is sentenced for four offences of theft from a shop and one offence of possession of class B drug. The total sentence is 26 weeks’ custody made up as follows:

  1. Theft from shop A on 7 June – 6 weeks’ custody
  2. Theft from shop B on 7 June – 8 weeks’ custody (concurrent)
  3. Theft from shop C on 7 June – 8 weeks’ custody (concurrent). Total sentence for 7 June offences – 8 weeks’ custody
  4. Theft from shop D on 14 June – 10 weeks’ custody (consecutive)
  5. Possession of Class B drug on 14 June – 8 weeks’ (consecutive). Total sentence for 14 June offences – 18 weeks’ custody

The sentences for 14 June are consecutive to those for 7 June so they are added together to give the total of 26 weeks’ custody.

Revising the guideline

In September 2021 the Council published a research report on the Totality guideline: Exploring sentencers’ views of the Sentencing Council’s Totality guideline. In light of the findings of this research we made a commitment to review the guideline and held a public consultation on draft proposals between 5 October 2022 and 11 January 2023.