Judges reject mandatory-sentence Bill

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Judges have attacked ministers' controversial plans for mandatory sentences, which they claim will stop them from protecting women and young offenders from harsh punishments.

The Council of Circuit Judges, which represents 652 judges in England and Wales, said measures contained in the Coroners and Justice Bill were "unnecessary, costly and unwelcome".

In a rare but outspoken attack on Government policy, they said the Bill, which is passing through Parliament, would tie judges' hands in very difficult cases. The guidelines, which set out exactly what length of sentence a convicted defendant must face without taking into account individual circumstances, are regarded as a threat to judicial independence.

In a statement, the judges accused the Ministry of Justice of trying to impose "mandatory guidelines" on how offenders should be punished which could result in "injustice" to victims and offenders, for example single mothers whose children might be taken into care if judges are forced to jail them.

They said: "We do not believe the introduction of mandatory guidelines will facilitate just and proper sentencing of offenders. We consider that the imposition of mandatory guidelines may result in injustice to both offenders and victims in individual cases. For example... some female offenders, young offenders and those in minority or disabled groups may be prejudiced."

The council's statement added: "We are, therefore, firmly opposed to the introduction of a sentencing matrix and mandatory guidelines as set out in the Bill and amendments."

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said the changes were aimed at "greater consistency". "The Government has addressed some of the points raised by the circuit judges – the position was made clear by the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, in Parliament on Tuesday," he said. "We are not proposing a sentencing matrix or mandatory guidelines, nor does the Government have any intention of removing judicial discretion from sentencing."

But the council's statement made clear that even with amendments proposed by the Government, the guidelines do not reflect the recommendations of the Gage Working Group. The model the Gage Working Group was encouraged to consider was a mandatory framework within which sentence was to be passed in all cases. Lord Justice Gage canvassed views and firmly rejected this concept. The judges said he did not recommend the introduction of mandatory guidelines restricting the discretion of sentencing judges.

But the Ministry of Justice denied the judges' claim. Its spokesman said: "The Sentencing Council provisions in the Coroners and Justice Bill implement the recommendations of the Working Group chaired by Lord Justice Gage."

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