Guest blog: Solicitor General, Robert Buckland QC MP - Making a decision as a lawyer, not as a politician

25 August 2016

Solicitor General

Solicitor General, Robert Buckland QC MP

As any member of the Bar will know, it's during the sentencing of a criminal case that victims of their crime and their family members can feel the most vulnerable. 

The Attorney General's Office operates the Unduly Lenient Sentence scheme which allows anyone to ask for an offender's Crown Court sentence to be reviewed if they think it's too low. The scheme was brought about from the public outcry that happened after the 1986 Ealing Vicarage rape case. 21 year old Jill Saward was brutally raped by a gang of robbers at her father's vicarage. The sentencing judge Mr Justice Leonard infamously adjudged that Miss Saward's rape trauma "had not been so great" and the robbers' sentences put greater value on crimes against property than the person. 

The ULS scheme is important because it provides a safeguard for victims of crime and their families, where sentencing errors may have been made. Once a case has been reviewed, it may then be sent to the Court of Appeal who may then in turn choose to increase the sentence. 

The Court of Appeal will only increase a sentence in exceptional circumstances; for example if the judge has made some gross error or has inexplicably passed a sentence that falls outside the range found in relevant sentencing guidelines. This threshold is a very high one to meet a sentence will not be increased by the Court unless they can properly be viewed asundulylenient not just lenient or merciful. 

Yesterday my office published new statistics detailing the cases which saw sentences lengthened under the ULS scheme during 2015. These show that, by and large, the judiciary get it right when it comes to sentencing. However, they also prove that the ULS scheme remains an important tool in ensuring sentences continue to be appropriately applied across the board, helping uphold public confidence in the criminal justice system. 

The statistics show that of the 713 requests we received during 2015, the Attorney General and I referred 136 cases to the Court of Appeal. Of those, the Court ruled that 102 prison sentences should be lengthened. 

This is an extremely small proportion of the 80,000 odd Crown Court sentences imposed each year - around one eighth of a percent. 

The Attorney General and I - and I mean us because we do it personally - make the decision about whether to refer these cases as lawyers, not as politicians. A recent example of that is the case of Sarah Sands. Her case was referred to my office after her conviction of manslaughter for killing a convicted paedophile.

My office received equal numbers of correspondents complaining the sentence was too high. The public and political audience doubted if she should have been convicted at all, let alone receive a three and a half year sentence. 

Despite these public misgivings, the Attorney General still referred the sentence to the Court who ultimately decided to increase Sands' sentence to seven and a half years, showing that sometimes potentially unpopular decisions need to be made in order to best serve the public interest. 

Referrals to the Court of Appeal can also provide an opportunity further guidance to be given when applying sentencing guidelines. 

I sent the terrorism case of Mohammed Abul Kahar to the Court of Appeal.  The Court decided that additional detailed guidance on sentencing was required, to ensure the law is applied correctly in other cases. 

We are involving a wider pool of prosecutors to take part in these cases. To that end, we are currently evaluating a pilot that has allowed Grade 4 prosecution counsel to present ULS cases rather than just a small number of Treasury Counsel. 

The ULS scheme is a valuable tool in ensuring that victims and family members of crime have confidence in the justice system. But much more than that, it also allows us to see first-hand that the judiciary in England and Wales are properly applying the law in almost every case.