Sentencing guidelines help make sure that judges and magistrates in courts across England and Wales take a consistent approach to sentencing.

The Sentencing Code states that the courts must follow any relevant sentencing guidelines, unless it is contrary to the interests of justice to do so.

What guidelines do

Guidelines provide guidance on factors the court should take into account that may affect the 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’).

Offences happen in many different ways with many different results. For example, assault offences can range from an argument where one person pushes another causing no injury, up to a carefully-planned gang attack that causes life-changing injuries. So it is necessary for the courts to have a range of sentences available that appropriately reflect the seriousness of each individual offence.

Types of guideline

Sentencing guidelines are available for most of the significant offences sentenced in the magistrates’ court and for a wide range of offences in the Crown Court. The Council also produces overarching guidelines on general sentencing issues and principles such as Sentencing children and young people.

Where no offence-specific sentencing guideline exists, courts will refer to the General guideline: overarching principles. Judges will also refer to Court of Appeal judgments to look at how sentences have been reached for similar cases.

The General guideline can be used with offence-specific guidelines where some factors are not covered and overarching guidance is required.

To see all definitive guidelines that are in force, including overarching guidelines, go to:

How much discretion do judges and magistrates have in sentencing?

By law, judges and magistrates must sentence according to Sentencing Council guidelines, unless it would be unjust to do so. They have the discretion to depart from sentencing guidelines if they think it would be in the interest of justice to do so, given all the circumstances of a particular case.