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:

What happens if there is no guideline?

Where there is no guideline for a particular offence, judges and magistrates will refer to the General guideline for sentencing offences that do not have a specific sentencing guideline. The General guideline came into force on 1 October 2019.

Judges may also refer to important Court of Appeal judgments to examine how sentences have been reached for similar cases in the past.

The General guideline can also be used alongside offence-specific sentencing guidelines where some factors are not covered in the offence-specific guideline and the courts require overarching guidance.

How much discretion do judges and magistrates have in sentencing?

Legislation sets maximum, and sometimes minimum, sentences for offences, but the law is written in a way that gives judges and magistrates considerable discretion when it comes to sentencing. Sentencing guidelines help sentencers identify what type and length of sentence they could impose and set out the factors they should consider before making their final decision. By law, judges and magistrates must sentence according to the 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.