I have never felt comfortable with the review of lenient sentences provisions, which allow the Court of Appeal to review sentences referred to them by the Attorney General, with the sole object of increasing them or converting community sentences into ones of immediate imprisonment.
Picture if you will how these so-called unduly lenient sentences are passed. The judge will be either a Recorder or a full time circuit judge, so they will have had the benefit of experience within the criminal system. They have to serve a minimum of 10 years at the coal face before they can apply to sit in loco judiciaris, and they start off trying piss ant cases such as shoplifting or gobbing in public to get the measure of the job so to speak. If they behave and keep their noses clean, and most important of all, if they don’t upset the Lord Chancellor’s minions, then the Queen’s shilling beckons, and it’s a job for life. Come the twilight when it’s time to retire, there’s the index linked pension to look forward to, and the chance to come back from time to time to relieve the boredom of gardening and too much daytime television.
Judges are also given a copy of Sentencing Guidelines, which they are expected to master, and which explain when to go in with the soft shoe and when to go in with the studs showing. All in all, you may think, not much room for error or original thought.
Imagine my surprise therefore when I am told that last year, 190 cases were referred by the Attorney General to the Court of Appeal as being unduly lenient. As an aside, the power to refer is also within the remit of the Solicitor General, but as nobody knows who he or should may be, it can be discounted.
The review of these unduly lenient sentences is carried out by judges of the Court of Appeal who know absolutely nothing of the trial process other than what they are told by the Attorney General, and he too knows absolutely nothing about the trial process. Of course the miscreant whose sentence is being reviewed has the benefit of mitigation provided by an advocate, who may or may not have been there when the sentence was passed.
It’s justice behind closed doors, to assuage the lust for condign punishment which is the life blood of middle England, that ignorant and bigoted swathe of the population that judges now have to humour. Before all this nonsense of everybody and his dog having a shout, the principle of open justice to which I subscribe is that justice must not only be done, but must be seen to be done.
And what is achieved by these increases in sentence, other than blood letting and yet more prison overcrowding? In my opinion, absolutely nothing. We either trust our judges, who were there to hear the evidence and listen to the mitigation, or we go down that well worn road travelled by countless dictatorships, where trial and sentence are conducted behind closed doors and there is no appeal.
Our judges are good enough, and experienced enough, and possessed of an abundance of common sense and fair play, to trust them to get it right, so let’s get rid of this odious backdoor kangaroo court and get on with the important task of making the system work.