Lawyers divided over sentence

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Magistrates are allowed under offical guidelines to give harsher penalties for an "offender in a position of authority".

Under a sentencing sheet supplied by the Magistrates Association, they are told that for common assault they can sentence offenders to anything from community service up to six months in jail.

They are told first to consider the seriousness of the offence, and to be more harsh if it is premeditated, committed while on bail for another offence or on a "particularly vulnerable victim". They should also add weight if it is part of a group attack, is on a public servant including a policeman, or if the offender is in authority.

On the other hand, if the attack is impulsive, or trivial, or provoked, they should regard the offence as less serious.

Having taken such factors into account, magistrates should ask themselves: "Is it serious enough for a community penalty. Is compensation, discharge or a fine appropriate, or is it so serious that only custody is appropriate?"

Magistrates then have to take into account any mitigation, such as a guilty plea, age, mental or physical health, the degree of remorse shown, and whether the defendant has offered any voluntary compensation to his victim. If they fine him, they are reminded to increase or decrease the amount according to the defendant's means.

Senior lawyers were split on the sentence given to Cantona yesterday. At a meeting of the Criminal Law committee of the Law Society yesterday, in a straw poll, half the solicitors believed Cantona's prominence as an idol justified the penalty, while half felt it was harsh.