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Sentences and Sentencing Procedure

This article lists all the different types of sentences that are available today, either in the Crown Court or Magistrates Court. It is not intended to be encyclopaedic, however, we hope it gives those facing sentencing enough information to have an informed conversation with their solicitor.

Absolute Discharge
This means that the court is not going to punish the offender at all.  Unsurprisingly, this sentence is very rare.  It is only used if there is something about the case which means that the court does not think that the offence committed deserved a punishment.

Conditional Discharge

This means that the court is not going to impose a punishment immediately but if any further offence was to be committed during a period of time stated by the court, then the court could sentence the offender again for the original offence as well as the new offence.  If no further offence is committed within the relevant period then there is no punishment. 


The level of a fine has to be related to the offender’s ability to pay.  Guidelines say that any fine should be capable of being paid off within about a year.  If the fine is not paid, the court can take out enforcement proceedings and the offender could ultimately be sent to prison.  The Court will usually impose a Collection Order which gives an offender 14 day to pay the fine in full.  However, provided they make contact with the Court Fines Enforcement Officer within the 14 days then they may be able to negotiate payment by instalments over a longer period. 

Community Orders

A court has to be satisfied that the offence is “serious enough” for a community penalty but not “so serious” that a custodial sentence must be imposed.  There are a number of requirements that can be attached to a Community Order.  These will usually be recommended in a report prepared by a Probation Officer.  The main types of “requirement” are as follows:

1. Supervision Requirement (This used to be called Probation)

This sentence would mean that the offender would have to report to the Probation service for a period of time, up to a maximum of 3 years, to try to address their offending behaviour.  The Probation Service might offer help with finding employment or try to tackle specific problems, such as anger management.  The court may impose additional requirements in relation to specific programmes or courses.  If this kind of order is breached, the offender can be brought back to court and re-sentenced for the original offences.  This could mean being sent to prison.

2. Unpaid Work Requirement (This used to be called Community Service)

This sentence would mean that the offender would have to carry out unpaid work in the community for a specified number of hours, up to a maximum of 240 hours.  If this kind of order is breached, the offender can be brought back to court and re-sentenced for the original offences.  This can mean additional hours being imposed or it could mean being sent to prison.

3. Drug Rehabilitation Requirement (DRR) (This used to be called DTTO)

This sentence is designed for offenders who have a drug problem.  It is very demanding, involving regular attendance at counselling sessions and compulsory urine testing.  It is designed for offenders with a serious problem, usually involving class A drugs, like heroin.   Breaching a DTTO would almost certainly mean being re-sentenced to a term of imprisonment.  The progress of the order will be monitored regularly by the court.  A DRR will usually be imposed alongside a Supervision Order. 

4. Curfew Requirement

A curfew order is similar to house arrest. People must stay indoors, usually at their home, for the curfew period. A tag, worn on the ankle or wrist, notifies monitoring services if the offender is absent during the curfew hours.  Orders last for a maximum of six months, with a minimum of 2 and up to 12 hours per day.

A sentence of imprisonment can be immediate or suspended. 

It is unlikely that an offender would have to serve the whole term of any sentence actually in prison.  It is usually the case that the offender serves half the sentence in custody before being released on licence. The offender may be released before the half way point on Home Detention curfew (‘HDC’ or ‘tagging’).  HDC means that the offender is released earlier than if they were simply released on licence but the offender has to abide by a curfew at a fixed address.  To ensure that the curfew is kept, the offender is given an electronic monitoring device (a ‘tag’) so that the authorities can check that the offender is at the correct address when they are supposed to be.  This is done through the telephone system.  If an offence is committed by an offender whilst on licence, or if the terms of any such licence are breached, or if an offender breaks the rules of the tagging scheme, then the offender could, and probably would, be recalled back to prison.

If the court decides to suspend the prison sentence then it imposes a Suspended Sentence Order.  As well as setting out the length of time that would have to be served and the length of time that the sentence is suspended for, the court must also impose one or more requirements (see above).  This means that failure to comply with the requirement(s) may result in the offender having to serve all or part of the prison term.

Pre-sentence reports

In order to determine the right sentence for any defendant, the court may order a Pre-Sentence Report (PSR).  This will mean that the defendant would have to meet with a probation officer to discuss the offence that they have been found guilty of, and any problems that they might have which they may need help with. (such as accommodation , substance misuse, etc)  If the court has in mind a particular kind of sentence, such as a Community Order with a Supervision or Unpaid Work Requirement, they may order a ‘Fast Delivery Report’ (FDR), stating the type of sentence that they are considering.   This kind of report is usually done on the day that the court orders it.   If an FDR can not be done on the day that the court orders it, or if the court orders a full PSR, then it will be necessary for the case to be adjourned.  The defendant will then be given an appointment to go to a Probation Services office near their home address if they are on bail, or receive a visit from a Probation officer if they are kept in custody.  Once given an appointment to go to a Probation Services office it is very important that the defendant attends that appointment.  If there is no good reason for a failure to attend, the court may not agree to a further adjournment for reports and in some cases may simply decide to sentence the defendant to a term of imprisonment.

Newton Hearings

A Newton Hearing is a special type of trial which is held where a defendant pleads guilty and there is a dispute about how guilty they are.  For example, if a defendant is accused of stealing £1000 but they only admit that they stole £50, then the court might think that the difference between the two is such that it would make a significant difference to the sentence that would be imposed.  The court would then hold a Newton Hearing to decide what the true position was.  At a Newton Hearing, as at a trial, the prosecution would have to persuade the court that they could be sure that the offence happened the way that is alleged and not the way that the offender says that it did.  If the court decides that it accepts the allegation made by the prosecution, then the offender may lose some of the credit that they would otherwise have had for pleading guilty.  If the court decides that the difference between the version of the facts alleged by the prosecution and that put forward by the offender is not so significant that it would make a difference to the sentence to be imposed, then there is no need to hold a Newton Hearing.  The court would then have to sentence on the basis put forward by the offender.  For this reason it is often advisable to set out a basis of plea in a written document.
Our thanks to Hamnett Osborne Tisshaw for this article.

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