New sentencing guidelines to be rolled out across Scotland's courts

A new set of guidelines designed to make sentencing more “open and transparent” across Scotland’s courts will be introduced later this year.

The eight-step process has been approved by the High Court of Justiciary as part of efforts to increase public knowledge and understanding of the sentencing process.

The framework details the various steps taken, and some of the factors which may be taken into account, by judges when making a sentencing decision.

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The Scottish Sentencing Council (SSC), which developed the guidelines, admitted the changes could result in an increase in appeals – at a time when the criminal justice system is facing a significant backlog of cases due to Covid-19.

It said that although it was not possible to estimate the additional costs arising from the new guidelines, it expected any increase would be “minimal”.

Some victims’ groups have already expressed concern over the new guidelines, the first of which asks judges to assess the “seriousness” of an offence.

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In its response to the SSC’s consultation on the guidelines, Scottish Women’s Aid warned labelling all summary offences as “less serious” risked minimising the experiences of victims of crime across summary offending.

The sentencing guidelines will apply across all courts in Scotland.

An independent analysis of the consultation found several organisations disputed the claim the guidelines would result in improved public confidence in sentencing.

Howard League Scotland said that would only be achieved if additional engagement methods, such as public education programmes, were rolled out.

In its impact assessment, the SSC accepted that “a possibility exists of an increase in appeals, with an attendant increase in resources required to sift and hear these appeals”.

It also said any such increase “is not certain to occur” and the extent of any increase was impossible to estimate, adding that it was also possible the number of appeals may fall.

The new sentencing process guidelines were approved at a High Court hearing on Thursday by the Lord Justice General Lord Carloway, Lord Menzies and Lord Woolman. The guidelines will come into force across all courts in Scotland from September 22.

Sheriff Principal Craig Turnbull, chair of the SSC’s sentencing process committee, said: “The approval of the sentencing process guideline is a significant milestone in the council’s work to make sentencing more open and transparent in Scotland.

“For the first time people will be able to see the steps a court follows in order to arrive at an appropriate sentence and some of the factors which are taken into account.

“The council believes this guideline will promote a consistent approach to sentencing and will enhance understanding of how sentencing works in Scotland’s courts.

“The approval of the sentencing process guideline also paves the way for specific offence guidelines which the council is currently developing.”

A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: “The government supports the work of the independent SSC to help improve understanding of sentencing and assisting the courts with their vital work in sentencing people convicted of offences.

“We welcome agreement of this latest sentencing guideline which is aimed firmly at laying out the different steps of the sentencing process to help both the courts when they sentence and people more generally to better understand how sentencing decisions are made.”

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