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Generally speaking a court will sentence according to the guidelines laid out by the Sentencing Guidelines Council or according to the precedent established in previously decided cases in senior courts.  There is a good reason for this.  If you allow courts to do as they please you find that sentences vary wildly.  This is not in anybodies interests as it leads to injustice for the defendant in one are and injustice for the victim in another.  Guidelines ensure consistency in sentencing across the country.

There are a number of these guidelines with which I disagree completely.  They are often either too lenient or far too harsh for the offence in question.

Last Saturday I was court duty solicitor for the West London area.  Due to court reforms we were sitting in Westminster Magistrates' Court.  The same court was hearing its own local cases and cases from the City of London.  Due to the confusion caused by jumbling so many areas up into one courtroom I ended up representing somebody from a the City of London's jurisdiction.  Since I am not a duty solicitor in that area (and when I briefly was I never got a case to deal with) I was completely unaware until Saturday that the City of London has introduced its own sentencing guidelines, which in the case of pickpocketing are much more severe than the nationwide ones.

The national guidelines for theft from person show a starting sentence for a first time offender of a community order for the lowest level offence.  However, in the City the starting point for the same offence is 18 weeks imprisonment!  My client pleaded guilty and got 12 weeks imprisonment for his first offence.  Anywhere else and, no matter what the guidelines say, I would have expected a fine.

I am all for people being rehabilitated in the community, but I am constantly amazed just how difficult it is to get sent to prison for offences of theft and violence, even when you have previous convictions.

In fact, for common assault there are three categories of offence set out in the guidelines and common assault carries a maximum sentence of 6 months imprisonment.  Yet, even for the most serious common assault the starting point for sentencing a first time offender is a community sentence.  That highest level includes situations where the victim suffers an injury!

Some sentences are getting so silly now that I wouldn't be surprised if Chris Huhne avoided prison for conspiring with his ex-wife to pervert the course of justice.


  1. I know the City Mags have always been an anachronism but how do they get away with this? The law says that the guidelines must be followed unless contrary to interest of justice. As the case was heard at Westminster why weren't they following guidelines?

  2. I thought these “Guidelines” were imposed by City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court on “their” cases and not City of London on ones from there. The reason for this is I’ve heard stories of City of London--which seems to have one overspill court for Westminster these days--dealing with people completely differently depending on where the arrest took place.

    Anyway, irrespective of which courts are using them, I completely fail to understand how they can be lawful. It seems flagrant fettering of discretion and disregarding of the requirement to follow the Sentencing Guidelines council. Even if the court does have discretion to make its own guidelines, it is clear that they have not followed anywhere near the detailed consultation process of official guidelines.

    Unless someone else had done so, if I ever get one of these cases, I would certainly seek to Judicially Review them.

  3. City of Westminster Magistrates' Court (as it was at the time) used to do exactly the same thing. I remember representing a Romanian national at his first appearance who was charged with theft (of the pick pocket variety). He pleaded guilty. During mitigation I referred to the Guidelines. The Chairman stated that the Court would take into account its own Guidelines when sentencing for offences of this type as the offending was prevalent in the area. There was a murmur amongst the lawyers in the courtroom and the legal advisor gave a look that could have turned the Chairman to stone. I asked to see these Guidelines and was told that I was not permitted to see them. I made representations that this was a wholly unjust situation if the Court was sentencing on Guidelines which the advocates and defendants were not permitted to see and make representations on. The legal advisor was quick to point out that there were no 'Guidelines as such' it was simply that the justices were entitled to take into account the fact that the offending in question was prevalent in the area when it came to passing sentence. I found that explanation extremely difficult to accept in light of what the Chairman had said. They passed a suspended sentence in the end which we appealed and got reduced to a fine. My great regret is not pursuing a Judicial Review on the basis that the Court had clearly stated that it was applying Guidelines which the advocates were not permitted to see. It has been a long time since I've been there (or Westminster Magistrates' Court as it now is) so I don't know what the current position is. Either way, if such a practice is going on, it is wholly unacceptable.

    There is a Court of Appeal authority (the name escapes me at the present time) which deals with the issue of prevalence as a feature of the sentencing exercise, but it certainly doesn't deal with the ability of a court to set it's own guidelines. Look what happened when the Crown Court tried to do that in the context of the riots; the judge was given a (very polite) telling off!

  4. Today I represented a pickpocket in a 'Westminster Guidelines' case. I was applying for bail, partly on the ground that there was no real prospect of imprisonment and I was stopped by the clerk.

    Don't you know about the Westminster Guideline? She said
    No. I said.
    It's pinned to a board outside Court 4.

    Sure enough. Outside Crt4 there is a laminated sheet of paper which says that due to prevalence of thefts from person in the area, the starting point is 18 weeks - the top of the lowest bracket on the SG guideline.

    This in my opinion, is an unlawful fettering of discretion. If the purpose of sentence is punishment, why should you be punished more harshly just because there are lots of thefts in a certain area? Each case has to be looked at on its own merits.

    If the purpose of sentence is deterrence, then why is the guideline hidden in a small room outside a single courtroom?

    If its rehabilitation, well nobody would argue that 9 weeks at HMP Wandsworth is going to rehabilitate anybody.

    The so-called Guideline goes on to state that it is reviewed periodically. I asked the clerk when it was last reviewed, and she did not know.

    Somebody ought to take this as a JR - except Oops. There's no legal aid for it.

    Awful. Awful. Stuff.

  5. I have got previous but not for theft or anythink like that but I am due in court 2row charged with theft for item worth 100pounds will I go to prison I am being heard in magstire court

    1. I'm not going to give legal advice over a blog.

      I suggest you make an appointment to see a local solicitor for legal advice.


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