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Lord Chancellor announces sentencing ‘shake-up’

In a White Paper (policy document setting out proposals for future legislation) published on 16 September 2020 entitled 'A Smarter Approach to Sentencing' the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland QC introduced a new Sentencing Code with the aim of streamlining procedural law, providing greater transparency in the sentencing process and giving the public confidence that the law is being correctly applied.

Mr Buckland QC stated “What we have today is a system that can be hugely complex but sadly is nowhere near as effective. Victims and the public struggle to understand it and have too small a faith that it has their safety in mind. The courts can find it difficult to navigate. Inadvertent legal errors requiring correction, sometimes all the way up to the Court of Appeal, are made, and judges are too often forced to hand down sentences that frankly seem to make little sense in particular cases.”

Focussing on tougher sentences and sanctions for serious offenders at the crux of the Paper there are also areas that deal with different attempts at rehabilitating offenders.

Some of the key areas include:

Protecting the public from serious offenders

  • Offenders who would ordinarily be subject to automatic release but are deemed to pose a serious threat to the public (for example terrorism even if that were not the original charge) will be referred to the Parole Board for assessment. The Parole Board will determine whether they are suitable for release.  This could result in offenders serving the entirety of their sentence.
  • Following from the increase from automatic release at half-way through the sentence to two-thirds for sentences over 7 years earlier this year; changes are also afoot for sentences between 4-7 years. Offenders convicted of a serious sexual or violent offence who receive between 4-7 years will also be subject to release at the two-third point.

Increasing sentence lengths for serious offences

  • For cases involving the murder of a child or a police officer the starting point for these offences (and others) will be a Whole Life Order.
  • Whole Life Orders can also, in exceptional circumstances, be given to 18-21 year olds (currently only from 21 years old)
  • The minimum tariff for life sentences to be based upon two-thirds of an equivalent determinative sentence rather than half as is the norm at present.
  • A ‘Sentence for Offenders of Particular Concern’ to be given to offenders who commit sexual offences against children. These offenders would normally be eligible for release half-way though their sentence – to be increased to two-thirds.


  • Courts to encouraged to make use of deferred sentences as a means of diverting offenders away from crime
  • "Out of court" disposals to be simplified with the aim of dealing with offenders quickly and effectively
  • Five 5 problem-solving courts to be piloted using innovative solutions to address offending behaviour

Criminal Records reform – reduction in rehabilitation period

  • Currently sentences over 4 years are never spent this will reduce to a period of 7 years (excluding serious sexual, violent and terrorist offences – they will continue to never be spent)
  • Sentences of 6 months or less reduced by a half to 1 year

Early criticism of the proposals express concerns about the increase of a prison population which is already stretched.

Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust said: “Talking tough is a good way to distract attention from a criminal justice system in collapse, failing both victims and offenders. People wait months, even years, for cases to be heard, then at the end of a jail term prisoners leave prison with nowhere to live. There’s nothing smart about rehashing punitive rhetoric and hoping for a different outcome. It’s a missed opportunity.

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Legal Disclaimer

Articles are intended as an introduction to the topic and do not constitute legal advice.