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Opinion: Judges often criticised for being too lenient but there are many factors at play during sentencing, explains Julia Roberts

It’s easy to judge the judges who impose “lenient” sentences on dangerous criminals.

But as KentOnline’s crown court reporter Julia Roberts explains, the severity of the punishment is sometimes out of their hands…

Judges come in for some criticism - often unfairly - argues our court reporter. Stock image
Judges come in for some criticism - often unfairly - argues our court reporter. Stock image

Judges are often the target for much criticism when it comes to the sentences they hand down.

We've all seen the headlines about them being 'too soft' and 'out of touch'.

Such public outcry has been so great that the government introduced what is known as the Unduly Lenient Sentence (ULS) scheme 35 years ago.

This was in response to a number of controversial sentencing decisions, including the 1986 'Ealing vicarage' rape case, with the first ULS hearing taking place in July 1989 and leading to a man guilty of incest having his prison term doubled.

The scheme allows anyone - whether prosecutors, victims or even members of the public unrelated to the case - to ask for certain crown court sentences to be reviewed by the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) if they think it is too lenient.

If it is considered to be so, the Court of Appeal will be asked to review it.

Anyone can ask for a sentence to be reviewed if they think it is too low, and only one person needs to ask for it to be considered.

Since it's introduction, the scheme has been expanded to include a range of terror-related offences, all serious sexual offences, threats to kill, child cruelty, people trafficking and modern slavery, and many racially and religiously aggravated offences.

More recently, sexual offences involving an abuse of trust, indecent images offences and domestic abuse offences were added to the scheme.

Judges often face criticism for being ‘too soft’. Library image.
Judges often face criticism for being ‘too soft’. Library image.

But what's important to remember is that while a judge may be criticised for imposing a 'soft' sentence, it is the politicians who decide what the maximum sentence for any offence should be. Government are the lawmakers.

There are also sentencing guidelines to follow, which determine a sentencing 'starting point'.

For example, although murder carries a life sentence, a minimum term that must be served before an offender can apply for parole has to be decided.

If it is a case where a knife was taken to the scene, there is a minimum starting point of 25 years. But then harm caused and culpability have to be taken into account, as well as any aggravating and mitigating factors.

There's a lot to consider, and the penalty decided upon may not always appear to be the appropriate one.

The issue of 'leniency' can also apply when a judge has imposed a maximum sentence and those involved believe it still isn't 'enough'.

Take the case of Kent youngster Tony Hudgell. His biological parents abused him so badly when he was just a few weeks old that he almost died and had to have his legs amputated at the knee.

It was at Maidstone Crown Court that they were convicted of causing or allowing serious harm to a child.

Then, the offence carried a maximum jail term of 10 years, and 10 years is exactly what Judge Philip Statman handed down. He remarked he had never in his many years in the legal profession, both as a barrister and on the bench, come across such horrific abuse.

Unusually for such a high penalty being imposed, the sentence was also upheld by the Appeal Court.

But what it highlighted was how lenient in general those convicted of such a heinous crime could be dealt with by the courts.

Tony and Paula Hudgell
Tony and Paula Hudgell

Worse still, anyone convicted of causing or allowing the death of a child faced a maximum of just 14 years behind bars.

Faced with such inappropriate punishments for any future cases of child cruelty, little Tony's adoptive mum Paula launched a campaign for offenders to be dealt with more severely.

With the help of public support and that of Kent MP Tom Tugendhat, Paula took her fight to Parliament - and won.

In June 2022, what is known as Tony's Law was introduced by the government whereby the maximum sentence for causing or allowing serious harm to a child increased from 10 years to 14. If death occurs, offenders now face life imprisonment.

It was an incredible achievement for a mum from West Malling who was inspired not by a soft, out of touch judge but one at Maidstone bold enough to lock Tony's abusers up for as long as he was legally able to do so.

So, next time you see a sentence deemed to be too low, don't be too quick to judge the judge. Maybe voice your concern at your local MP instead. After all, it may just change the law.

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