Are judges unduly lenient?

Royal Courts of Justice - home of the Court of Appeal

I read a story in this morning’s Times entitled, “’Soft’ sentences increased for sex abusers and killers”. The story goes on to report that 102 criminals had their sentences increased following appeals by the Attorney General. Of those 102 cases, 40% involved sexual offences.

So, are judges being surprisingly lenient?

In the period March 2014 to March 2015, there were 1.72 million individuals dealt with by the Criminal Justice System, while that may sound a lot it is in fact a record low since 1970! This figure includes a large number who were dealt with in the magistrates’ courts rather than the Crown Court, from whence Attorney General's references all emanate. It seems that of that 1.72 million, only 80,000 cases made it to the Crown Court.

The Times makes the point that 40% of increased sentences were for sexual offences, based on 102 increased sentences I make that 40 cases. So, that’s 40 out of how many? In the 12 months to March 2015 there were 12,000 sexual offences proceedings, of which 6,400 resulted in convictions. This means that judges sentencing people for sexual offences were NOT unduly lenient in 99.4% of cases.

In all Crown Court cases, the judge was NOT unduly lenient in 99.87% of cases.

That does not mean though that judges get sentences correct virtually every time. Because, not only the Attorney General can appeal – defendants feeling themselves wronged by their judge also may lodge an appeal.

During the year to September 2012, there were 7,442 appeals against sentence or conviction lodged. Of those, 65% of appeals against sentence were refused by the single judge. Nonetheless, the full court went on to hear 2,001 appeals against sentence. Of those 25% were successful – that’s 500 people who were sentenced to a sentence that was “manifestly excessive”, which is the test for whether or not an appeal against sentence will succeed.

As with appeals by the Attorney General, figures for appeals against sentence do not include appeals from the magistrates’ courts.

Call me a cynic, but while I read in the national press of 102 cases of “soft sentencing” among a total of 80,000 cases, I don’t recall ever reading about the 500 men and women given sentences that were manifestly excessive!


  1. And what about the judges who erred on leniency? Do they have to face the headmaster?

    1. I suppose depending on the seriousness of the transgression it could well be time for them to surreptitiously slip a book down the back of their pants in preparation to face the headmaster.


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