HL Deb 21 January 2003 vol 643 cc551-3

Lord Ackner asked Her Majesty's Government:

In the year 2002, in relation to those offences for which life imprisonment is the maximum sentence, how many applications were made by Her Majesty's Attorney-General to the Court of Appeal to review the sentences as being unduly lenient, and with what results, particularising the offences and the length of the sentence imposed by the trial judge.

The Attorney-General (Lord Goldsmith)

My Lords, in the year 2002 in England and Wales, in relation to those offences for which life imprisonment is the maximum, the Law Officers made applications to the Court of Appeal to review sentences in respect of 97 offenders. Of these, 44 applications are yet to be heard. Of the 53 heard, the Court of Appeal has agreed that the sentence was unduly lenient in 49; and the court has increased the sentence of 38 offenders. The offences involved include murder, attempted murder, manslaughter, robbery, rape, arson and kidnap and others. The further information that the noble and learned Lord seeks would be too detailed to go into today, but I am happy to write to him if he would still like it.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord. I have two questions, which are based on two assumptions. The first assumption is that the noble and learned Lord will accept that he has a statutory duty under Section 36 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 to refer unduly lenient sentences to the Court of Appeal. The second is that the noble and learned Lord is aware of decisions in which the determinate sentence has been changed by the Court of Appeal to life sentence. If he wishes to know them, I can give him the two references. My two questions are as follows. Does the noble and learned Lord agree that, if the Attorney-General is complying with his statutory duty as we understand and expect he would, the courts, bearing in mind the vast number of cases dealt with, are carrying out their duties responsibly? Secondly, does he agree that the Home Secretary, having lost any right to play any part in dealing with murder cases, is acting irresponsibly in threatening to bring in by statute what he considers to be the appropriate sentence for murder, category by category?

Lord Goldsmith

My Lords, I do not understand myself to have a duty to refer unduly lenient sentences in every case. The Court of Appeal has a discretion, and so do I. So I am not sure that it is possible to deduce from the figures I have given that, in all other cases, I, or others, would agree with the sentences passed.

In response to the noble and learned Lord's second question, I do not agree that the Home Secretary is acting irresponsibly. As my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer made plain in the debate on sentencing in this House on 15th January, the basic principle must be that a judge acts independently on the facts of an individual case to set the appropriate sentence. But it has been found extremely useful, if not essential, for the courts to have guidance from the Court of Appeal, now with the assistance of the sentencing advisory panel, and the guidance of the sentencing guidelines council proposed in the Criminal Justice Bill. Murder has always played a special role in our criminal justice system. For parliaments to play a role in the setting of sentences—the guidelines for sentences, in those cases—does not appear to be the slightest bit irresponsible.

Lord Thomas of Gresford

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord make clear his approach to applications? Does he consider a sentence to be unduly lenient if it is in line with current sentencing as set out by the judges; or does he make applications when he feels it is time to up the level of sentences in a particular category of case?

Lord Goldsmith

My Lords, since this power was introduced in 1988, it has been used largely to refer to Court of Appeal sentences which the Law Officers, in their independent quasi-judicial judgment, believe to be out of line with existing tariffs and sentencing guidelines. There are also occasions where the Law Officers will think it appropriate to ask the Court of Appeal senior judges to consider whether any adjustment to the guidelines is appropriate. That would be for the guidance of all sentencing judges and to increase public confidence in the system.

Lord Carlisle of Bucklow

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that it would be far better to continue with the system whereby the individual sentence is a matter for the court, assisted by judicial guidance, as he said, rather than move to mandatory minimum sentences, which apparently the Government now propose?

Lord Goldsmith

My Lords, as I indicated in answer to an earlier question, it is obviously right that in the individual case, the judge should be able to exercise his or her judgment on the facts of the case. But there are guidelines from judges, with the assistance of the sentencing advisory panel, which some judges at the time thought a bad move. I have heard them say now that they think it has been a success, and I entirely agree. The sentencing guidelines council will build on that. So there is room both for the individual judgment and the assistance of others in setting the guidelines.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, is it not clear that judges sit in their positions of authority in order to defend the people of this country? Is it not therefore perfectly right, when the people of this country wish to send a message through Parliament or through the Home Secretary, that the Home Secretary acts to do that? He is fully within his rights and is behaving absolutely responsibly when he intimates to the judges the feelings of the people of this country, which he frequently gets just about right.

Lord Goldsmith

My Lords, as my earlier answers indicated, the Government believe it appropriate that there should be input into judicial views on sentencing from the sentencing advisory panel and from other sources. In the case of murder, which has a special role in the criminal justice system, it is thought appropriate to take account of the views of Parliament while still leaving discretion to judges in individual cases within those guidelines. To that extent I agree with the noble Lord.

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