New Sentencing Code to help prevent unlawful sentences being handed out

A new Sentencing Code will reduce the number of unlawful sentences being handed out and save £250 million over ten years, the Law Commission has announced today.

When they sentence offenders, judges have to contend with more than 1,300 pages of law filled with outdated and inaccessible language. This law is contained in over 65 different Acts of Parliament, and has no coherent structure. This makes it difficult for judges to identify and apply the law they need, which can slow the process of sentencing and lead to mistakes.

The Commission is recommending that anyone convicted from now on should be sentenced under a simplified and modern Sentencing Code. This would mean that judges would no longer need to search back through layers of old law.

This would decrease the number of unlawful sentences handed out, avoid unnecessary appeals and reduce delays in sentencing.

Law Commissioner for Criminal Law Professor David Ormerod QC said:

“Current sentencing laws are simply not up to standard. The public expect clear, transparent and most of all fair judgments. Far too often this is not the case.

“Our reforms will save time and money and make the law clearer and easier to apply. This will help the judiciary to navigate the law, and the wider public to understand it.

“The Sentencing Code will make a real difference and we’re ready to help the Government to implement the Bill we have published today.”


Sir Brian Leveson, Head of Criminal Justice said:

“The need for a clear, logically structured statute governing sentencing procedure is long overdue. The Commission’s Code is welcomed by judges and practitioners for the clarity it provides. It will bring confidence to the public generally that sentences handed down are accurate and lawful. It will, moreover, save vast amounts of time and money.

The Parliamentary time required to enact the Code will be negligible. What are we waiting for?”


Max Hill, Director of Public Prosecutions, said:

“Parliament ensures our criminal legislation keeps pace with changes in criminal activity and behaviour. This is particularly evident when it comes to amending and revising the approach to sentencing in criminal cases.

“This new proposal for a Sentencing Code Bill will enable all who are involved in criminal justice to read the relevant provisions clearly and, for the first time through the clean sweep mechanism, in one place. The Bill therefore marks a significant leap forward and is to be welcomed.”

The need for reform

Last year, 1.19 million sentences were handed out to offenders in England and Wales. However, the unnecessary complexity of sentencing legislation has led to a disproportionate number of errors and unlawful sentences being imposed.

For example, one study found that over a third of sentences (36%) considered by the Court of Appeal involved an unlawful sentence.

The outdated language and need for judges to examine historic versions of sentencing procedure law also gives rise to inefficient court procedures. Combined with other pressures on the criminal justice system, this contributes to significant delays in justice for victims and offenders.

On average, it takes 53 days in a magistrates’ court and 200 days in the Crown Court from charge to the end of the trial process.

These problems damage public confidence in sentencing but also result in delays, an unnecessary number of appeals, and waste millions in public money.

The Commission’s recommendations

The Law Commission is recommending the introduction of the Sentencing Code and a “clean sweep” of the old sentencing law so that anyone convicted once the Code is in force would automatically be sentenced under the current law.

This would apply for every offence no matter when it was committed, with limited and partial exceptions where applying the current law would expose a person to a penalty greater than the punishment available at the time the offence took place.

The Sentencing Code would simplify the law of sentencing procedure and bring it into one statute, whilst also removing unnecessary provisions and updating the language. The changes will reduce delays by making the sentencing process easier, simpler and clearer.

This would:

  • save more than £250 million over 10 years by avoiding unnecessary appeals and reducing delays in sentencing;
  • help stop unlawful sentences by providing a single reference point for the law;
  • allow judges more time to spend on deciding on an appropriate sentence, or on other cases;
  • improve public confidence in the law and understanding of sentencing.

However, the Sentencing Code would not:

  • alter the maximum sentences for criminal offences;
  • subject any offender to a harsher penalty than that which could have been imposed at the time of their offence;
  • extend minimum sentencing provisions or create new minimum sentences;
  • reduce judicial discretion;
  • replace sentencing guidelines or the work of the Sentencing Council.

In devising the new Sentencing Code, the Law Commission consulted with more than 1,400 individuals and organisations including the Sentencing Council, the Law Reform Committee of the Bar Council and the Criminal Law Committee of the Law Society.

Find out more about the Sentencing Code project here.