While nothing can change the penalty imposed on Anthony Benton, who has a 21-year history of convictions for sexual offences, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, has ordered an inquiry to see if the law needs to be amended.
Last Friday, Judge Robin Laurie said Benton should have gone to prison for six to eight years for his latest assault, on a nine-year-old girl. But he claimed that under current sentencing practice, he could only jail him for 18 months. As Benton had already served that amount while on remand awaiting trial, the judge decided to make a three-year probation order for the indecent assault, on condition that he received therapy.
The sentence aroused public concern - not least from the victim's family - and Mr Howard indicated at the weekend that the legal provision which enables Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General, to intervene in cases where a sentence is regarded as too lenient, might be invoked.
The maximum penalty for indecent assault is 10 years' imprisonment, but that is rarely imposed. The Criminal Justice Act 1991 allows courts to consider harsher than usual penalties in order to protect the public from a violent or sex offender. Provisions in the Act - about to be repealed - which limit the circumstances when a judge or magistrate should take into account previous convictions, do not apply to in relation to crimes involving sex or violence. However, the Attorney General's office said yesterday that the power to send a case to the Court of Appeal applies only to offences which must be tried in the Crown Court. 'The offence of indecent assault can be tried either in the Crown Court or in a magistrates' court, and so does not come within that category.'
Yesterday, Home Office lawyers considered whether under the Criminal Justice Act 1988, which enabled apparently lenient sentences to be reviewed and increased by appeal court judges, Mr Howard could intervene. A section enables the Home Secretary to make any category of offences subject to review, but it is not retrospective.
However, making all sex offences subject to review in future is an option the Home Secretary could take if he finally decides the case gives rise for concern.
Benton was first jailed in 1972 and has served three prison sentences for serious sexual assaults and indecent assaults on young girls.
Last week, following a referral from the Attorney General, the Court of Appeal quashed a probation order on a teenager who attempted unlawful sex on a nine-year-old girl and substituted a four-month prison sentence. The appeal judges said the sentence would have been much longer but for the fact that the offence was isolated, that the teenager was of previous good character and because of the publicity ordeal he and his family had faced.