Prison reform groups believe the new practice may eventually cut the lengthy prison sentences dealt out to drug carriers, who remain much-vilified despite recent research showing most are motivated by extreme economic hardship rather than greed.
Under the new Criminal Justice Act, pre-sentence reports are required for all offenders. Until now reports were seldom provided on foreign drug couriers because of the lengthy sentences set down in judicial guidelines and the difficulties of confirming the personal details of a drug smuggler from a remote province of Pakistan, Nigeria or Colombia.
In addition Lord Lane, the former Lord Chief Justice, ruled the character of the courier was of less importance than that of defendants in other cases, because drug barons chose the poor and the sick as 'mules' knowing that if they were caught the court might be 'moved to misplaced sympathy'.
For the past year Rosemary Abernethy and Nick Hammond, of Middlesex Area Probation Service, which is responsible for couriers apprended at Heathrow Airport, have been developing a international information network involving charities such as the Red Cross and the Catholic Church in Africa, Asia and South America.
Their report, to be issued next month, concludes that information about overseas offenders can and should be gathered. Other probation services are considering adopting the system.
Olga Heaven, co-ordinator of Hibiscus, a small charity which gathers information on Nigerian couriers, says the requirement of pre-sentence reports for all offenders contradicts Lord Lane's guidance for the sentencing of overseas drug traffickers. 'That practice means that foreign nationals do not get fair treatment. It is unjust that a judge would pass sentence without knowing anything about a person's circumstances, without seeing the person as an individual,' she said.
Adam Sampson, deputy director of the Prison Reform Trust, believes the Middlesex project offers some hope of equal treatment to foreign drug couriers. He says the court's current dismissal of personal details 'verges on the discriminatory' and the new justice Act challenges the practice.
He also argues that the rationale for lengthy sentences for foreign nationals caught smuggling, that they are a deterrent to other potential carriers, was illogical. Research proved the couriers were motivated by financial hardship and 'profoundly ignorant' of the British legal system.
Dr Penny Green, lecturer in law at the University of Southampton and an expert on couriers, says the reports will only make a difference in exceptional circumstances without a fundamental shift in the philosophy which underpins the punishment of foreign drug couriers.
Mr Hammond and Ms Abernethy remain cautious about the effects on sentencing but Beverly Thompson, assistant director of the National Association for the Care and Rehabilitation of Offenders, believes the reports have already cut a few sentences.
A post-mortem examination will be held today on a Nigerian woman who died in hospital after packets of cocaine that she was smuggling burst inside her. Rosalie Ogidie, 36, had been on a life support machine. A companion, who had also swallowed drugs, died on arrival at Gatwick.