Sentencing code

Current project status

  • Initiation: Could include discussing scope and terms of reference with lead Government Department
  • Pre-consultation: Could include approaching interest groups and specialists, producing scoping and issues papers, finalising terms of project
  • Consultation: Likely to include consultation events and paper, making provisional proposals for comment
  • Policy development: Will include analysis of consultation responses. Could include further issues papers and consultation on draft Bill
  • Reported: Usually recommendations for law reform but can be advice to government, scoping report or other recommendations

Following our recommendations the Sentencing Code was enacted in the Sentencing Act 2020. It came into force on 1 December 2020

View the full report

View the summary of the full report 

View the executive summary of the full report

View the Welsh summary of the report

The problem

The law on sentencing affects all criminal cases, and is applied in hundreds of thousands of trials and thousands of appeals each year.

It is important to offenders, victims and the public that sentencing is efficient and transparent. Errors and delay in sentencing not only cost money but also impact upon public confidence in the criminal justice system.

The current law of sentencing is inefficient and lacks transparency. The law is incredibly complex and difficult to understand even for experienced judges and lawyers.

It is spread across a huge number of statutes, and is frequently amended. Worse, amendments are brought into force at different times for different cases. The result of this is that there are multiple versions of the law that could apply to any given case.

This makes it difficult, if not impossible at times, for practitioners and the courts to understand what the present law of sentencing procedure actually is.

This leads to delays, costly appeals and unlawful sentences.

There is near unanimity from legal practitioners, judges and academic lawyers that the law in this area is in urgent need of reform.

The courts have repeatedly complained about the complexity of modern sentencing procedure.

There is strong evidence that the high number of unlawful sentences being handed down is a direct result of the inability of judges to find their way through the relevant provisions.

This undermines public confidence in sentencing and costs a great deal of public money to rectify on appeal.

The project

The purpose of this project is to create a single statute which contains all of the law on sentencing procedure. By bringing together the existing legislation into a single “Sentencing Code”, with a clear and logical structure the law will be made more accessible for the public, the judiciary and practitioners.

A new Sentencing Code has three key benefits:

  • it makes the law simpler and easier to use;
  • it increases public confidence in the criminal justice system; and
  • it increases the efficiency of the sentencing process.

Following a number of consultation exercises and issues papers we published the draft Sentencing Code alongside an accompanying Report on 22 November 2018.

Enacting the Sentencing Code would:

  • help stop unlawful sentences by providing a single reference point for the law of sentencing, simplify many complex provisions and remove the need to refer to historic legislation;
  • save up to £256 million over the next decade by avoiding unnecessary appeals and reducing delays in sentencing clogging up the court system;
  • rewrite the law in modern language, improving public confidence and allowing non-lawyers to understand sentencing more easily;
  • remove the unnecessary layers of historic legislation; and
  • allow judges to use the modern sentencing powers for both current and historic cases, making cases simpler to deal with and ensuring justice is better served.

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; or
  • replace sentencing guidelines or the work of the Sentencing Council.

Support for the project

This project has consistently received strong support from all stakeholders since it was announced in 2015. There is a widespread agreement that the law in this area is in urgent need of reform.

Sir Brian Leveson, Head of Criminal Justice:

“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?”

Lord Justice Holroyde, Chairman, Sentencing Council:

“The Sentencing Code will make the law clearer, more straightforward and more accessible not only to judges and legal practitioners but also to the general public.  The collection of all relevant law in a single place, capable of being updated quickly, will save much court time and help to reduce the risk of errors which may give rise to appeals.  It will assist the work of the Sentencing Council by assisting judges to focus on the imposition of a correct sentence in accordance with relevant sentencing guidelines.”

Max Hill, Director of Public Prosecutions:

“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.”


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Documents and downloads

Project details

Area of law

Criminal law


Professor David Ormerod QC