The Old Bailey is `softest' UK court

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The Independent Online
THE OLD Bailey, once feared by criminals for the harshness of its justice, is now responsible for the most lenient sentences in the country.

A study by Birmingham University reveals that of the 367 criminal cases referred to the Attorney General for undue leniency between 1989 and 1997, more than a tenth had been tried at the Old Bailey. In total, 24 Old Bailey judges were responsible for 43 referrals for leniency. One Old Bailey judge, the study found, had four sentences challenged for undue leniency.

Of the 91 Crown Court centres in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the Old Bailey has far and away the worst or best record - depending where you are standing in the court - for soft sentences. Its closest rivals are Birmingham and Nottingham Crown Court centres, which each had 14 cases referred.

Stephen Shute, senior lecturer in law at Birmingham University and author of the report, Who passes unduly lenient sentences?, said the Old Bailey figures were "greatly exceeding what one might have predicted on the basis of the Old Bailey's case load".

He concluded that this "clustering" of undue lenient sentences was difficult to explain. "None of the usual hypotheses offered for inconsistent Crown Court sentencing seem applicable," he said.

"It is unlikely, for example, that judges at a busy Crown Court centre such as the Old Bailey would be adversely affected by a general feeling of isolation and lack of awareness of other judges' sentencing practices that some have suggested is a possible source of inconsistency at small Crown Court centres," he said. And since relatively few recorders - junior Crown Court judges - sit at the Old Bailey, the disparity in the lenient sentences could not be explained by less experienced judges passing sentence.

Mr Shute, whose study is published in this month's Criminal Law Review, suggested one reason might be the "culture of relative leniency" that has grown up among senior judges at the Old Bailey. He said this could "overspill" into unduly light sentences.

Another explanation, postulated by Mr Shute, was the very serious nature of the cases tried at the Old Bailey. "If it is true that very serious cases cause sentencers the greatest difficulty, then one might predict that a court which dealt with many such cases would have a higher referral rate," he said.

Another possible explanation might be the media interest which Old Bailey cases attract. This, suggested Mr Shute, might cause more cases being brought to the attention of the Attorney General than in a low-profile Crown Court centre.

Many criminals recently sentenced at the Bailey, however, may not feel they have benefited from the so called culture of leniency. Earlier this year, Jonathan Aitken was sentenced to 18 months in prison for perjury. According to research carried out by the National Association for the Care and the Resettlement of Offenders, this was seven months longer than that received by the average criminal who commits perjury.