Unduly Lenient Sentences

The Attorney General has the power to ask the Court of Appeal to review some sentences which he thinks are "unduly lenient" - so light that a judge could not reasonably have handed it down. If the Court of Appeal agrees with the Attorney General it can increase the sentence.

This power has been limited by Parliament in two important ways:

1. Only certain cases are eligible

The sentence must be for one of these offences:

  • more serious crimes which can be dealt with only in the Crown Court, such as murder, rape and robbery
  • some sex crimes, especially those involving children, but also indecent assault and some
    other sex crimes
  • child cruelty
  • threats to kill
  • some serious frauds
  • some drugs crimes
  • some racially or religiously aggravated crimes
  • attempting or inciting any of these.

2. There is a strict 28 day time limit, from the day the sentence was passed.

If you are concerned that a sentence may be unduly lenient, it's important that you tell the Attorney General's office quickly, so he and his advisers have time to consider it before the deadline. (The 28 day limit is calendar days not working days, so weekends and holidays do count!).

All cases are considered personally by the Attorney General or his deputy, the Solicitor General.

They personally look into all the facts and consider the concerns of the victim and family. They apply the law and guidelines which apply to the sentencing decision. Normally they also have advice from:

  • lawyers who appeared for the prosecution in the trial
  • a highly experienced independent barrister, who hasn't been involved so far
  • expert lawyers in his office.

"Unduly lenient" means more than just lenient

The courts have said that an unduly lenient sentence "falls outside the range of sentences which the judge, applying his mind to all the relevant factors, could reasonably consider appropriate".

In other words, the sentence must not just be lenient, but must be unduly lenient - not just low, but unreasonably low.

The Court of Appeal will not change the sentence unless it is significantly below what the judge should have passed. The Attorney General has to bear this in mind when deciding whether or not to refer a case to the Court.

The Attorney is also able to refer cases where it seems that the judge made a legal mistake about his or her powers of sentencing.

You may find it helpful to talk to your local Crown Prosecution Service about the sentence in the case you are concerned about.

About sentencing

Sentencing is complicated and judges must think about many things when making their decisions. For example they consider the impact on the victim and their loved ones, how vulnerable the victim was, whether the offender should have been looking after the victim, whether the crime was provoked, whether it was planned carefully or happened on the spur of the moment, whether the offender showed remorse, the age of the offender, and much more.

Indeterminate sentences

The effect of certain sentences is sometimes misunderstood.

Indeterminate sentences mean that an offender has no automatic right to be released, ever. These sentences were created to ensure that dangerous offenders are not released before the Parole Board has agreed that it is safe to release them.

There are two types of indeterminate sentence: a life sentence and a sentence of imprisonment for public protection (IPP - or detention for public protection (DPP) if the offender is under 21)

Life sentences must be given to offenders guilty of murder. Life sentences may also be passed in other serious offences such as manslaughter, rape and armed robbery.

In a very few cases of extreme gravity, a judge may pass a 'whole life term' as part of a life sentence, which means that the offender can never be released.

Otherwise, when a judge sentences someone to life imprisonment, he or she must also decide on a minimum term or 'tariff'. The offender must spend that time in prison before he or she can apply to the Parole Board to be released. When this happens, the Parole Board, which is an independent body, will consider if it is safe to release the offender. In reaching this decision they will look at statements from the victims or their families.

If the Parole Board decides that an offender is no longer a risk, he or she will be released "on licence". This means they will be monitored by the Probation Service and will have to obey certain conditions. If the offender does not meet these requirements he or she can be recalled to prison. If the Parole Board decides that the offender is still a risk they will refuse to release him or her. Some offenders with these sentences may never be released.

A sentence of IPP (or DPP) is similar to a life sentence in its effect. The judge has to fix a minimum term and the offender must serve that term before he or she is able to apply to the Parole Board to be released.

For more information about sentences visit the DirectGov website or the Judiciary website.

Anyone can ask the Attorney General to look at a case

Victims, their families, and members of the public can contact the Attorney General's Office if they think a sentence is much too light.

It's easy to ask the Attorney General to look at a case - you don't need a lawyer. To ask for a sentence to be looked at, you'll need some basic information. This includes:

  • the name of the person who was sentenced;
  • the name of the Crown Court where the sentence was passed;
  • the crimes committed;
  • the date of sentence.

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And also tell us which case you are concerned about and why you think it should be changed. You should contact the Correspondence Unit. The Attorney General's Office will email you when a decision is made whether to refer the case to the Court of Appeal.

Don't worry if you don't have all the information, but the more you can give us, the more likely it is that we will find the right case.

If you can, also phone the Attorney General's Office on 020 7271 2492. You may need to leave a message.

Statistics

108 cases were referred to the Court of Appeal in 2009. About three quarters led to an increased sentence. It is worth remembering that around 80,000 cases are dealt with in the Crown Court in any one year.

2008 Unduly Lenient Sentences Spreadsheet

2008 Unduly Lenient Sentences Performance Chart

2001 to 2008 Unduly Lenient Sentences Chart

Northern Ireland - 2008 Unduly Lenient Sentences Chart

Northern Ireland - 2001 to 2008 Unduly Lenient Sentences Chart