You are here

Thornhill defends magistrates over riot sentencing

There was no 'feeding frenzy' after mass disorder, magistrates' leader says

5 September 2011

John Thornhill, chairman of the Magistrates Association, has denied claims by the Prison Governors Association (PGA) that lay magistrates were caught up in a “feeding frenzy” of disproportionate sentencing in the wake of the riots.

Speaking to The Independent on Sunday, Eoin McLennan-Murray, president of the PGA, said the courts were guilty of “naked popularism” and seemed to have “lost all sight of proportionality”.

Thornhill replied that, following what he described as “mass civil disorder which threatened the very safety and stability of local communities”, more than 2,000 people had been arrested for serious offences in a very short period of time.

He said that once magistrates had imposed sentences, the way they were delivered was not their concern. In the same way he said the level of sentences was not the concern of the PGA, but a matter for the judiciary.

“I am not an expert on prisons,” Thornhill said. “I can’t comment on prison conditions but if they are concerned, they must raise them.

“There was no sentencing frenzy. The sentencing guidelines must always be applied but statute allows members of the judiciary to increase the seriousness of the penalty if there are aggravating factors.

“The fact the offences were carried out in concert with so many other people increased the harm and the culpability. Many of the defendants deliberately went into town to steal and loot.”

Thornhill said that even where the property burgled was non-residential, if there was serious harm the result should be a custodial sentence.

He said the CPS had been very determined in applying for remands in custody, and had appealed against decisions where magistrates had granted bail.

“The majority of sentencing decisions were taken by the professionals, district judges in the magistrates’ courts or by judges in the Crown Courts,” he added.

It is understood that only around ten to 12 per cent of convicted rioters have received their sentences.

Earlier last month Franklin Sinclair, senior partner of Tuckers, called on the Court of Appeal not to interfere with the sentences imposed on rioters by Manchester’s senior judge.

Judge Andrew Gilbart QC, the Recorder of Manchester, said the sentencing guidelines could “properly be departed from” when dealing with people involved in the riots because the situation took them “completely outside the usual context of criminality”.

Judge Gilbart said he “had regard” to Court of Appeal decisions on cases relating to the Bradford riots of 2001, but had applied the principles “in the context of disorder of a different kind and involving widespread ransacking of shops and theft of goods from them”.

Sinclair agreed that the situation was so “out of the ordinary” that no “real sentencing guidelines” could be applied.

“Courts have always been able to give deterrent sentences,” he said. “There is some kind of need for the courts to impose heavy sentences so that people can see that they will get five years.

“If sentences like these are brought down by the Court of Appeal from five years to two, it will be seen as a victory for disorder and lawlessness.”

Sinclair said that, although courts should be “very careful” with the sentences they gave to avoid appeals, Judge Gilbart had explained his decisions in a “very clear and rational manner”.

Sinclair went on: “As a result I don’t think his sentences will be interfered with by the Court of Appeal, nor do I think they should be.”

Categorised in:

Legal Aid Procedures Courts & Judiciary