Magistrates should be trained to apply sentencing guidelines correctly to stop defendants ‘venue shopping’ for a more lenient sentence, the Law Society has said.
Chancery Lane was responding to a Sentencing Council consultation on amendments to guidance determining whether cases should be dealt with by a magistrates’ or Crown court. The Society suggested that if magistrates better understood their powers, the application of the law and guidelines, this would reduce the risk of cases being sent ‘inappropriately’ to the Crown court.
The Society said ’it may be thought that certain cases, for certain individual defendants, are better tried before a jury’. It was also ‘the reality’ that, where there was doubt about guilt, it was ‘much more likely’ full disclosure of the prosecution case would occur if the case was sent to the Crown court.
‘It is a common perception of defence practitioners that what appears to be a very serious offence to a magistrate is regarded as very much at the lower end of the seriousness spectrum by a Crown court judge and warranting a penalty less severe than the one that a magistrate would pass,’ the response said.
In such instances, the Society said, defendants benefit from the advantage of having their case sentenced by a higher court ‘as they are less likely to receive a lesser sentence’.
‘There is a need for training for magistrates in the correct application of the sentencing guidelines aimed at eliminating or reducing disproportionate sentencing so that defendants do not “venue shop”.’
Draft ‘up-to-date’ guidance was drawn up by the Sentencing Council in response to Sir Brian Leveson’s review of efficiency in criminal proceedings, in which he called for the guideline to be reconsidered after amendments to schedule 3 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 brought committals to an end.
The Society queried the extent to which the proposed guidelines suggested personal mitigation and credit for guilty pleas should be taken into account at the allocation stage in cases where a not guilty plea is entered.
Its response stated it was ‘preferable’ the court that heard the trial also sentenced the defendant: ‘In our experience, the defendant’s demeanour during the trial may have a significant impact on the sentencing decision, and it is very important that the link between the magistrate, or judge, who hears the trial and the sentence should not be broken’, the Society said.
The Society also proposed guidance emphasising children and young people should only be committed to Crown court for trial ’where it is essential to the interests of justice, irrespective of adult co-defendants’.
’If a child or young person has allegedly taken a leading role there is even more reason for their case to be heard in the most appropriate court, which is in a youth court designed for their needs,’ it said.
The Society urged the Crown Prosecution Service to take a greater role in reviewing charges at an earlier stage as the police ‘often over-charge or over-emphasise their view as to seriousness [of the case] to the CPS’.