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The Solicitor-General (Ms Harriet Harman): I welcome the subject that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) has chosen for this debate, and I acknowledge, as he has done, the deep interest of my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) in the matter, and his commitment to these issues. Both my hon. Friends have already taken the opportunity to convey to me the sense of injustice that their constituents feel about the sentences in the cases that have been raised tonight.

I was not surprised to see the subject that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North had chosen. Both he and my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling take a close interest in the question of crime and justice for their constituents. They focus not only on the question of sentences—which we are debating tonight—but on the fear of crime and on the effective response to crime by the police, prosecutors and courts that their constituents want, and to which they are entitled. Because of my hon. Friends' representations on the concerns of their constituents, I am in a better position than I would otherwise have been to understand the context of crime in Nottingham, which is where the impact of the Court of Appeal's sentencing decisions in these cases has been most deeply felt.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North has argued for three things: first, for the courts to take into account the effect of their sentences on public confidence and, in particular, for the Court of Appeal to take into account the effect on public confidence locally of any reduction in a sentence that it might make; secondly, for more scope for—and public engagement in—a decision of the Law Officers to refer an unduly lenient sentence, along with a broad approach rather than a narrow legalistic one; and thirdly, for the opportunity to appeal an unduly lenient sentence when it is believed to have been imposed not by the court at first instance but following an appeal by the defendant against their sentence.

First, does the Court of Appeal take into account the effect of its sentence on public confidence? The answer is yes it does, and rightly so. Its sentence is important not only for the defendant and the victim in that case but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North graphically illustrated, for the wider public There are many occasions on which judges, at first instance, rightly explain how they have had regard to the effect on public confidence in respect of a particular type of offence, a particular type of victim or a particular locality when they impose a sentence. That is helpful not
 
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just for the defendant, victim and local community to understand how the sentencing decision has been reached, but if the defendant appeals against the sentence to the Court of Appeal, that Court can see in the papers why the judge took his or her view at first instance. It is also helpful for Law Officers, when we consider whether a sentence is unduly lenient, to see what considerations have been taken into account when a judge is sentencing, including whether he or she has recognised the effect on public confidence. The Court of Appeal will often reflect in its judgment its concerns for public confidence in the local community in the criminal justice system in relation to its sentencing decisions.

Secondly, one of the important developments in the way in which the Crown Prosecution Service handles cases is that prosecutors understand the importance of bringing to the attention of the court, in the sentencing exercise, the effect of a crime in a particular community, as well as challenging any factual errors in mitigation. It used to be felt that the prosecution's job was done as soon as the conviction had been obtained. Now prosecutors better understand that they have a role in bringing out the features of the case to assist the judge in sentencing and in challenging any wrong facts that might be put forward in mitigation. Helping the courts in the sentencing exercise is an important new role for prosecutors. When they do that at first instance, those points will be in the transcripts considered by the Court of Appeal should the defendant appeal.

On the issue of Members having the opportunity to prompt the review of a sentence, may I start by reminding the House how the unduly lenient sentence regime works? Anyone can refer a sentence to the Attorney-General or me and ask us to refer it to the Court of Appeal, even a member of the public, someone from a different part of the country or someone not involved in the case. Anyone can ask us to consider a case. Our jurisdiction, when a case has been brought to our attention, is simple: we have the power to refer a sentence from the Crown court to the Court of Appeal if we think that it is unduly lenient. It is not restrictive, nor do we interpret it restrictively, and it does not exclude any considerations. The only stipulation in the statute is the time limit—that we must refer the sentence to the Court of Appeal within 28 days. I therefore reassure my hon. Friends that setting out criteria in statute on what should be taken into account would not be of assistance. We step back, examine the sentence in the public interest and ask ourselves whether it is unduly lenient. It is as simple as that.

This is a very special jurisdiction. Parliament gave Law Officers the right to refer a sentence in order to ensure that sentences that are manifestly wrong, that would undermine public confidence in the community and that would undermine confidence in the judiciary, can be reviewed by the Court of Appeal.

What happens in the process? The facts of the case are agreed, and the case goes to the Court of Appeal. The offender is represented by counsel, and I or the Attorney-General are represented by Treasury counsel. In some cases, the Attorney-General has himself acted on a reference. The court will have before it all the case papers, including the victim impact statement, which should always have been put before the court in the first instance of sentencing. In other words, it should always be in the case papers before the Court of Appeal, which
 
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will always take them into consideration.The Court of Appeal will then judge whether the sentence is unduly lenient, and it can either confirm it as it is, or increase it. This jurisdiction is a safety valve to ensure public confidence and justice in individual cases.

The Attorney-General and I regard that power as one of the most important that we exercise, and we exercise it in the public interest, not on the Government's behalf. In every case that comes before us, we personally consider the file, the advice of Treasury counsel, and the advice of the lawyers in our excellent legal secretariat. It is very much open to any Member to ask us to look into a case and to consider referring it to the Court of Appeal. There is no need for Members to ask the chief Crown prosecutor to consider a case, although they can do so. Instead, they can come straight to us, and many do. Indeed one Member brought a case to my attention during the last Solicitor-General's questions, and after closely examining, it I did indeed refer it to the Court of Appeal as involving an unduly lenient sentence.

My hon. Friend asked what happens when a sentence is felt at first instance to be fair and not unduly lenient, but the defendant then appeals and the Court of Appeal, which is that much further away from the community that cares most about the case, reduces the sentence to such an extent that people feel that it is now unduly lenient. On the right to appeal against an unduly lenient sentence by the Court of Appeal as referred by the Law Officers, such an appeal can only concern a point of law, but it can be made to the House of Lords. As far as I am aware, that has never actually happened, but it is possible and such provision is made in statute. Law Officers can appeal against a Court of Appeal's unduly lenient sentence.

My hon. Friend asked me how that could work in respect of an appeal from the Court of Appeal's decision on a defendant's appeal against sentence. He has invited me to reflect on this point about an appeal against a sentence imposed by the Court of Appeal in an appeal by the offender against sentence—that sounds somewhat circular, but my hon. Friend will get the point—and I undertake to reflect further and write to him about it.

Perhaps I can conclude by assuring my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham, North and for Gedling that I am acutely aware of their concern that the justice system should command the confidence of their constituents, and that the Attorney-General and I will continue to consider with the greatest attention their and their colleagues' representations about sentencing on their constituents' behalf.

Mr. Allen: My right hon. and learned Friend has been very generous in saying that she will think about this issue and write to us. Will she make a point of discussing it with the judges at the Court of Appeal, so that they understand that we are not trying to attack their Lordships in this regard? Rather, we want to pick their brains and to ensure that they do what I am sure they wish to do: relate their judgments to the community impact.

Ms Harman: The judges in the Court of Appeal, who are very concerned about public confidence in the criminal justice system, will doubtless look carefully at
 
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the record of this debate in Hansard. I will consider these issues and get back to my hon. Friend, but it is very important that the Attorney-General and I have the opportunity to look at the statutes and the case papers. In doing so, we should take into account the representations made and the information given to this
 
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House about the concerns of his Nottingham constituents, and take note of the fact that he and my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling are ready to speak up for their constituents on these important issues.

Question put and agreed to.


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