The government‘s former terror adviser has intervened in the row over the sentencing of people who took part in last week’s riots, accusing ministers of appearing to “steer” the courts into handing down the more stringent sentences.
Lord Carlile, the barrister and former Liberal Democrat MP warned that the sacrosanct separation of powers between the government and thejudiciary had appeared to have been breached by some of the messages coming out of government since the riots engulfed neighbourhoods last week.
Carlile, who served for 10 years under Labour and the coalition as the government’s independent anti-terror adviser, told the Guardian: “I don’t think it’s helpful for ministers to appear to be giving a steer to judges. The judges in criminal courts are mostly extremely experienced and well capable of making the decisions themselves. Ministers should focus on securing the safety of the public.”
Asked whether ministers had overstepped the mark, he said: “Some judges may feel that and some ministers may feel that they have had a responsibility to use the language of sentences rather than policy.”
He defended the actions of judges saying it would be inevitable that sentencing would be tougher in the circumstances of the public disorder that took place last week, but he warned that there would be numerous appeals and called for the court of appeal to produce guidelines for judges and magistrates.
He said that “just filling up prisons” would not contribute to maintaining the peace of England’s streets, and warned that there were too many first-time offenders who had been remanded in custody on relatively minor offences after the events who would be eligible to appeal for bail.
It comes amid growing concerns over the length of prison sentencesbeing handed down for riot-related offences after two men in Chester were jailed for four years for posting messages on Facebook inciting people to create disorder in their home towns despite the fact that the riots didn’t take place.
Simon Hughes, deputy leader of the Lib Dems, said he hoped the courts would show more leniency for first-time offenders.
The prime minister David Cameron praised the work of the courts, after he was asked during a visit in Warrington about the Facebook case. “What happened on our streets was absolutely appalling behaviour and to send a very clear message that it’s wrong and won’t be tolerated is what the criminal justice system should be doing,” he said.
“They decided in that court to send a tough sentence, send a tough message and I think it’s very good that courts are able to do that.”
But dissatisfaction about the hardline reaction on the Tory benches among their Liberal Democrat coalition colleagues is intensifying with key figures urging caution.
The former Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell said: “With all due deference to the prime minister, politicians should not be either cheering nor booing in the matter of sentencing. It is an important part of our constitutional principles that political influence is not directed at the judicial system.”
Hughes told Sky News: “The courts are independent, thank god entirely independent. They will reflect community feeling as well as tariffs and sentencing. Each judge will look at each case individually, if they are outside reasonable sentences they will be brought down on appeal.
“I think the message has to go that look, if you were involved last week you can expect to be punished toughly and firmly. If you are not a first offender you can seriously expect the courts to come down on you. But I hope the courts will show understanding and relative leniency on first-time offenders and make sure that all the sentences don’t just put people inside and pull them out again but engage with the community.”
Carlile’s intervention is significant as he is the most prominent figure to suggest that ministers have sought to influence the courts. Respected on all sides of the house, Carlile has worked in government alongside civil servants in the home office reviewing its counter-terror policy and although appointed by Labour the coalition extended his job after the election. He stepped down earlier this year after six years. He is also president of the Howard League for Penal Reform.
He said: “I think there may be a slight problem in that judges and magistrates are working without court of appeal guidelines and I expect cases to reach the court of appeal quickly. I share the hope of many lawyers that the court of appeal will produce a set of guidelines so there can be a sufficient level of consistency, even with guidelines there will be variation because a judge is perfectly entitled to reflect local circumstances.
“My suspicion is that as time passes the level of sentencing in these cases will reduce. I am actually more concerned with the number of people who are on remand in custody. There are numerous first offenders who have been remanded in custody who in other circumstances would not have been remanded in custody. I think there will be crown court appeals. A lot of people have been remanded in custody by magistrate courts for relatively minor offences such as receiving small quantities of stolen clothing. In ordinary circumstances people in that situation would not be remanded in custody – they might get a custodial sentence but they would not be remanded in custody in the first instance.”
He said that deterrent sentences were to be expected for those who commit acts of violence or theft of valuable items but added: “There will be a shakedown of the less serious cases although all forms of looting and rioting are going to attract greater sentences. In due course people with no previous convictions who have received stolen clothing for example may be more likely to find themselves with non-custodial sentences.”
He added: “Just filling up prisons may not be contributing in the long term to the peace and orderliness of society. They may only have themselves to blame but prison should never be the first option.”
- England riots: ministers wrong to ‘steer’ courts, says Lord Carlile (guardian.co.uk)
- Riots: Teen Sports Star Remanded In Custody (news.sky.com)
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