Website of the UK government

Please note that this website has a UK government accesskeys system.

Public services all in one place

Main menu

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Sentencing and appeals

The law presumes an accused person is innocent until proved guilty beyond reasonable doubt by the prosecution. If the defendant pleads guilty, the judge will simply decide upon the appropriate sentence.


Community Payback means offenders are required to do unpaid work in the community as part of their sentence

The court sentences the offender after considering all the relevant information. This can include pre-sentence reports and other specialist reports or mitigation by the defence. A range of discharges and sentences is available, and the sentence will depend on the type of court and the seriousness of the offence. These include:

  • discharge - this happens when, having considered the character of the offender and the nature and circumstances of the crime, the court decides that punishment would not be appropriate; a discharge can be 'absolute' (which means it doesn't have conditions), or 'conditional' (on not committing another offence)
  • monetary - for example, fines, compensation orders and confiscation orders
  • community sentence - made up of a combination of 12 possible requirements (see below for more details)
  • custody - a prison sentence

Community sentences

Sentences served in the community offer the courts a punishment for offenders that can also address the causes of their offending. There are 12 possible requirements the court can include in any sentence, including programmes for anger management and drug rehabilitation, supervision by the National Probation Service, and unpaid work in the community - known as Community Payback.

If the offender is employed, they are expected to do the work in their own time. A community sentence is not seen as a 'soft option' by the courts. It combines punishment with changing offenders' behaviour and making amends - sometimes directly to the victim of the crime.

You can find more details information about community sentencing and the 12 possible requirements on Directgov by following the link at the end of this section.

Custodial sentences

Imprisonment is the most severe penalty that is available to the courts - it is generally only available for the more serious offences. Additionally, each each offence has a maximum prison term, which is usually set out by an Act of Parliament. There are mandatory minimum sentences for serious repeat offenders (meaning that they can't be sentenced to less than a specified amount of time in prison). Any time an offender has spent in custody before their trial usually counts as time towards their sentence.


Any person convicted by a magistrates' court can appeal to the Crown Court against their conviction, and/or the sentence imposed, or on a point of law to the High Court. Appeals from the Crown Court go to the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division).

A further appeal can be made to the House of Lords if permission is given.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission - which is independent of both government and the courts - reviews alleged miscarriages of justice that have been through the appeal process. It can refer a case back to the Court of Appeal if there is a possibility that either a conviction or a sentence would not be upheld. Referral of a case to the Commission depends on some new argument or evidence being discovered that was not raised at the trial or appeal.

Sentencing and appeals in Scotland

There are some differences in the way Scotland deals with sentencing and appeals.

Non-custodial disposals

The non-custodial disposals (or sentences) in Scotland include fines, community service orders, probation orders, restriction of liberty orders, and drug treatment and testing orders.

Custodial sentences

In Scotland, a court must obtain a social enquiry report before imposing a custodial sentence if the offender is under 21, or if they have not previously served a custodial sentence.


A convicted person can appeal against their conviction, or sentence, or both, to the Scottish Court of Criminal Appeal. There is no further appeal from this court to the House of Lords. The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission considers alleged miscarriages of justice and refers cases which meet the relevant criteria to the Court of Appeal for review.

For more information on sentencing and appeals in Scotland, follow the link below.

Sentencing and appeals in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland's legal system is broadly similar to that in England and Wales. The Criminal Justice System Northern Ireland website provides information on how offenders are sentenced and how the appeals system works. Follow the link below for more information.

Further information

Find out more about how probation is managed and the work of the National Probation Service with offenders by following the link below.

Access keys