Categorized | Criminal Justice

Council of Circuit Judges

Council of Circuit Judges

The Council of Circuit Judges (COCJ) is effectively the trade union representing the 652 Crown Court judges in England and Wales. The Council has become a body with a very public profile, responding to the many consultations put out by government. It accepts that judges should not make political statements, nor comment on individual cases, but can and do contribute to better understanding of how the law operates and should operate. So when the Council condemn government plans for new sentencing guidelines as “unnecessary, costly and unwelcome” and likely to lead to injustice it comes as a fresh blow to the controversial and embattled Coroners and Justice Bill which is now passing through Parliament.

Jack Straw’s catch-all bill has made these columns twice before (see “Civil Liberties” and “Partial defences to murder”). This point of attack is aimed at Chapter 1, clause 100 et seq, which, according to the COCJ, would mean that the discretion of the sentencing judge would be severely limited by “mandatory guidelines which the court must follow or apply in reaching the sentencing decision”. The Sentencing Guidelines Council and the Sentencing Advisory Panel are to be abolished, to be replaced by the Sentencing Council for England and Wales, a body of 14 appointed jointly by the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice. This Council must prepare sentencing guidelines which every court must follow in sentencing an offender. The bill has passed through the Commons but has yet to go through the Lords.

In a hard hitting statement issued last week, the COCJ said that “We do not believe that the introduction of mandatory Guidelines will facilitate the just and proper sentencing of offenders. We consider that the imposition of mandatory Guidelines may result in injustice to both offenders and victims in individual cases”. The judges accuse the Government of departing from recommendations made by a working group set up under Lord Justice Gage in 2007 to consider a mandatory sentencing framework. Its report called the idea “unsuitable and unacceptable in England and Wales”. Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, has sought to defuse the issue, insisting that he was not introducing mandatory sentencing guidelines. He said that he had moved a series of amendments to underpin judicial discretion. The bill was intended to ensure greater consistency in sentencing, which would be in the interests of justice and, primarily, of the public.

The COCJ is unimpressed “even taking account of the government amendments”. It concludes damningly “We do not consider these sentencing proposals to have any benefit. The proposals are not sought by the judiciary or any other criminal justice group”. The full text of the COCJ statement can be found at

http://www.judiciary.gov.uk/about_judiciary/governance_judiciary/cocj/statements.htm

This post was written by:

- who has written 462 posts on Upper Case – The Anya Legal Journal.

Mike Gribbin is a retired Civil Servant with wide experience, including the drafting and implementation of Parliamentary legislation and regulations. He is the editor of “Criminal Offences Handbook”, a uniquely comprehensive guide to more than one thousand ways to fall foul of UK criminal law. He is Editor of the Upper Case Legal Journal and has been writing blog posts for the past eight years.

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