Sentencing - the Attorney-General's power to refer an unduly lenient sententence to the Court of Appeal

Those of you who are researching the Attorney-General's ability to apply for leave to refer an unduly lenient sentence to the Court of Appeal, may find the case of Lee Williams of interest.

Lee Williams had been convicted, following a trial at crown court, of what seems to have amounted to cocaine smuggling.  Cherie Blair QC, sitting as a Recorder, sentenced Williams to a 12-month suspended sentence.

The Appeal Court Judge, Lord Justice Pitchford, reportedly described the original sentence as 'remarkable' when he quashed the sentence on the basis that it was 'unduly lenient.'  A sentence of three and a half years was handed out instead.  The timing is perhaps unfortunate, bearing in mind the growing debate about sentencing in the wake of public disorder offences earlier in the year and the subsequent on-going debate about the adequacy of sentencing guidelines and the criminal justice system generally. 

The latest statistical issue to arise from the sentencing figures post the riot convictions and sentences, is that it seems nearly 3 out of every 4 defendants had a prior conviction for a criminal offence.  According to Kenneth Clarke this is further confirmation that the sentencing policy, if not the criminal justice system itself, is not working properly as this evidence shows that offenders have apparently not learnt the error of their ways from their previous treatment under the system.

The Attorney General
   can apply under Section 36 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 for leave to refer an unduly lenient sentence to the Court of Appeal.  The Court of Appeal has the power to uphold the sentence or to quash it and substitute its own sentence.  Will such referrals fuel the debate about the rights and wrongs of the criminal justice system at the present time?

Such referrals operate as a safeguard against what the public may see as a sentence which does not properly act in the public interest.  Williams had after all been convicted of conspiracy to supply a class A drug into the UK.  The cocaine, which amounted to nearly 1kg, had a street value of about £145,000.  Whilst acknowledging that Williams may not have been an organiser or leader he was thought to have been 'near the top of the food chain' although this was disputed by his lawyer.

Apparently some 300 cases are brought to the attention of the Attorney-General each year.  The present Attorney General is Dominic Grieve.  In most cases the Crown Prosecution Service will bring cases to the attention of the Attorney-General but it is possible that in some instances the Attorney General will be contacted by members of the victim's family if they feel that the sentence handed out was particularly inadequate.  Such cases need to be kept in perspective bearing in mind the numbers of sentences handed out each year and any increase in the number of references is not necessarily a measure of any dissatisfaction of sentencing policies generally.



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