In the Media

Riot judges ?did not face political pressure?

PUBLISHED December 14, 2011

Judges were influenced by television images of rioting on the streets when they handed down tough sentences but not by political or public pressure, a senior judge said this week. ?I have no doubt that the television images of what happened on the streets will have impacted on judges,? Lord Justice Leveson said.

?Equally ? and I think legitimately ? community impact statements were prepared by police to describe the effect of what had happened in different parts of the country and judges paid attention to that.

But they did not act in response to calls by politicians for tough penalties or any political pressure, Lord Justice Leveson told the Commons Justice Committee.

The judge, who chairs the Sentencing Council, defended the sentences imposed, saying judges were within their rights to go beyond sentencing guidelines in meting out tough punishments to rioters.

He said: ?Political and other pronouncements about how the courts should be sentencing didn?t, as far as I understand it, drive a single sentence.

?It is very nuanced to say whether judges, who of course have to be mindful of public opinion, are getting it from what they see themselves or from what is asserted in the press.

?I would hope and believe that they are sophisticated enough to recognise the difference and act accordingly.?

He added that at some stage the Council might draw up new guidelines for dealing with rioters in future, he told the Commons Justice Committee.

Lord Justice Leveson, taking a break from his injuiry into press standards, insisted that there were ?absolutely not? any discussions with the Ministry of Justice or the Prime Minister?s office about what sentences should be handed down.

The judge accepted that many of the sentences handed down for looting and damaging shops and inciting disorder were still more severe than suggested in the Council?s existing guidelines on theft.

These were clarified in the wake of the disturbances to highlight that judges could treat public disorder as a potentially aggravating factor when looking at theft from shops.

But it was acceptable for judges to go beyond the range because the guidelines were aimed at ?capturing the centre ground?.

These guidelines were not to prevent courts from taking the view that the ordinary range of sentences ?do not fit the offence that has taken place.?

?The interests of justice always permit the judge to go outside the guidelines,? Lord Justice Leveson said.

?I think most people would probably say that the sort of riots that we saw in August don?t fall within the middle ground at all.?

There were many complaints about the sentences handed out, including four-year jail terms for two men convicted of using Facebook to incite riots that never took place.

Only a minority were reduced on an appeal. The Court of Appeal took the view that ?those who permitted themselves to get caught up with large-scale disturbance had to learn that you got involved in that activity at your peril?, he said, ?and taking advantage of public disorder to commit crime would be seen as extremely serious?.

The sentences passed were in line with sentences passed in previous similar situations, he added.

He told the MPs that the trend in tough sentences was set soon after the riots by Judge Andrew Gilbart, the Recorder of Manchester, whose strict decisions on a range of offences were taken into account by courts across the country.

But politicians made no attempt to put pressure on the Sentencing Council in relation to riot sentences.

Asked by committee member Jeremy Corbyn whether society would ?pay a price? in years to come for criminalising young people who had foolishly allowed themselves to get caught up in disorder, Lord Justice Leveson responded: ?Everybody will be paying a social price.

?Society has a responsibility of considering the comparative cost of public disorder to businesses and homes and livelihoods on the one hand and to those who commit crime on the other. None of this is cost-free.?