Page last updated at 01:42 GMT, Friday, 12 December 2008

Judges condemn sentence guidance

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Ministers said the guidelines proposal would address concern over sentencing

Judges and sheriffs have criticised Scottish Government plans to establish guidelines for the sentencing of offenders.

Ministers have said guidelines were needed because of public concern that sentences handed out by courts varied.

But the Sheriffs' Association said there was no evidence to suggest there was a lack of consistency.

In their submission, High Court judges said Appeal Court decisions already amounted to guidance for sentencers.

The Scottish Government's proposals are based on a similar system in New Zealand.

We consider the absence of a proposal to include the judiciary in the list of those who must be consulted to be surprising and unacceptable
Submission from judges
But the judges said that government claims that the system works well in New Zealand were inaccurate, as the new government there is about to abolish it and use the money saved to help victims of crime.

They also said there were aspects of the proposals which were liable to undermine the principle of judicial independence in sentencing.

The proposed Scottish Sentencing Council would provide sentencing guidelines which, once finalised, would have to be adhered to by judges in all courts.

They could depart from the guidelines if the circumstances of a case warranted it, but would have to formally state their reasons.

But in a scathing submission, the High Court judges collectively said they knew of no research to back up claims of inconsistencies in sentencing.

The proposals for how sentencing guidelines should be prepared did not include any requirement for judges to be consulted.

Our proposals are aimed at ensuring consistency and transparency in the sentences imposed in our courts
Kenny MacAskill
Justice Secretary
The submission states: "Given that sentencing is a judicial function, we consider the absence of a proposal to include the judiciary in the list of those who must be consulted to be surprising and unacceptable."

The judges recommend the creation of an advisory panel which would provide draft guidelines to be considered by the Appeal Court, which would have the power to approve or reject them.

The judges' criticism is echoed by the Sheriffs' Association, which questions the need for a council and warns of a "burdensome and, we suspect, expensive bureaucracy that will be the result of these proposals".

The Scottish Government said it was considering all responses to its proposals, which may be included in a Justice Bill in the New Year.

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill added: "Judicial independence is one of the cornerstones of the Scottish justice system.

"Judges and sheriffs will always have the final say when it comes to sentencing.

"Our proposals are aimed at ensuring consistency and transparency in the sentences imposed in our courts."

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