Criminal sentencing law dating back to 14th Century to be simplified to improve judicial system

Law Commission says proposed review will make process faster, cheaper and more transparent

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Thursday 27 July 2017 00:01 BST
The Law Commission says ‘complex’ sentencing laws are causing unnecessary delays in the legal system, and heightening the risk of wrongful sentencing
The Law Commission says ‘complex’ sentencing laws are causing unnecessary delays in the legal system, and heightening the risk of wrongful sentencing

The Law Commission is proposing dramatic reforms to “complex and inaccessible” sentencing law to reduce costly errors and delays in the judicial process.

The body, which advises the Government on law in England and Wales, said justice is currently reliant on a “proliferation” of laws over 1,300 pages long and dating back to the 1300s.

“The current state of the law means that it is simply impossible to describe the governing sentencing procedure as clear, transparent, accessible or coherent,” said the Commission’s consultation paper.

“This is not only undesirable in principle, but also has negative effects in practice, resulting in unnecessary errors and delays, all of which are costly.”

The body argued that sentencing law must be accessible for judges, potential offenders – so they can understand the consequences of their actions – and the general public.

Its report said new sentencing orders had arrived almost annually in recent decades, leaving “no clear and logical structure” to be relied upon by the courts, and heightening the risk of unlawful sentences.

The constant arrival of new sentencing laws heightens the risk of wrongful sentences

“The consequence of this state of affairs is that the law on sentencing is overwhelmingly complex and difficult to understand for practitioners and judges,” the Law Commission said, citing an “extraordinary number” of wrongfully-passed sentences.

“All this lies against a backdrop of an over-worked and under-resourced criminal justice system, where the average time from the charging of an offence to its final disposal in the crown court is 245 days, and the average waiting time for an appeal … is 5.7 months.”

Appeals exert fresh pressure on the courts, while even without errors, sentencing hearings take an “unnecessarily lengthy amount of time” owing to difficulties identifying the applicable law, driving rising costs and knock-on delays.

The Law Commission has launched a consultation on simplifying sentencing, stressing it will not affect the current limits on punishments for different criminal offences.

It hopes the resulting refreshed code will help stop unlawful sentences by providing a single point of reference and cutting out historic legislation, while rewriting the law in modern language and allowing powers to be used for both current and historic cases.

The Commission said the measures could save up to £255m over the next decade by avoiding unnecessary appeals and reducing delays clogging up the court system.

Law Commissioner Professor David Ormerod QC said: “People want and expect clarity and transparency when the courts sentence offenders, but judges face an increasingly difficult task when doing so.

“Our changes will make sentencing simpler, by getting rid of the need to dust off decades’ old law, cut court waiting times and help make sure people get the justice they deserve.”

The Criminal Bar Association was among the legal bodies welcoming the “extremely important” consultation.

Chair Francis FitzGibbon QC and vice-chair Angela Rafferty QC said: “It addresses the increasingly complex and difficult issue of sentencing, upon which we would all welcome some clarity.”

The Sentencing Council, which is responsible for developing and reviewing guidelines, also lent its support for the proposals.

The body’s chairman, Lord Justice Treacy, said: “Currently, sentencing law is overly complex, which causes inefficiency and can prevent people understanding this important part of criminal justice.

”Their proposed approach to reforming sentencing will help improve not only the work of the courts, but will increase the transparency of sentencing and therefore people’s understanding of how it works.”

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