A Sentencing Council consultation looks to have finally led to some urgency being injected into the decade-long issue of 'venue shopping' occurring within the justice system.
Responses to the outcome of this consultation appear to show a seriousness developing for amendments to be made.
'Venue shopping', is the practice of a defendant choosing to be sentenced by a particular court, under the impression that they will receive a more lenient sentence by doing so. Statistics appear to show that there could be some truth to this view, that has been held by many for years.
A perception exists that magistrates are 'case-hardened' and that as such, they are more likely to hand out similar sentences for similar offences, without necessarily taking into account any outstanding circumstances that may be present within the situation. These circumstance should then be playing a part in the sentence that is eventually handed down.
Truth also appears to exist in the view that, 'as a very serious offence to a magistrate is regarded as very much at the lower end of the seriousness spectrum by a Crown court judge, it is often viewed that the offence warrants a penalty less severe than the one a magistrate may pass.'
Defendants can benefit from the advantage of having their case sentenced by a higher court, as they are then less likely to receive a severe sentence from a magistrate taking a severe view of their offence.
Crown court judges deal with the most serious of crimes, and as such, may take a more lenient view of the crime's severity when compared to some of others that they are dealing with.
Additional training has been proposed as the resolution for an issue that has dogged the justice system for decades. Cases being sent to the Crown court inappropriately, is a huge waste of resources and has the potential to create unneeded backlogs in a court that is already operating at close to it's full capacity.
In theory, training magistrates to apply sentencing guidelines correctly, should undermine the view that choosing to go to the Crown court when presented with the option, is beneficial to the chances of being handed a lenient sentence.
If the application of the law reflects a similar course universally, throughout the system, 'venue shopping' should hopefully be resigned to the past.
It's undeniably preferable if the court hearing a trial is also dealing with the sentencing of the individual, purely on a logistical level.
However, it must also be considered that the right to choose whether to be tried by one's peers is a right that has existed for centuries and to take this away completely would be unthinkable.
The resolution to this problem lies in the concentrated amendment of the sentencing policy currently being adopted by magistrates up and down the country.
A point must be reached where faith is restored in the court's sentencing procedures and society begins to trust the magistrates courts once again.
‘There is a need for training for magistrates in the correct application of the sentencing guidelines aimed at eliminating or reducing disproportionate sentencing so that defendants do not “venue shop”.’