Sentencing Update 2017: The Government signals tough sentencing changes in England & Wales

Sentencing Update 2017: The Government signals tough sentencing changes in England & Wales

Over the last few days, the government has announced proposals to introduce new offences and increase sentencing for a range of offences. Dan Martin, our Head of Criminal Defence, looks at some of the changes and what they mean.

Acid and Corrosive Substances

In response to increasing public awareness and media attention around acid attacks, including some high profile and shocking incidents in London earlier this year, the government proposes to create a new criminal offence of possessing a corrosive substance in a public place. The proposed offence is modelled on the current offence in Section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 of possessing a bladed article in a public place.

It is envisaged that similar defences to the knife offence would also apply to the proposed corrosive substance possession offence, for example, where a person can prove they had a good reason or lawful authority for having it in a public place.

The government also proposes to introduce a new offence preventing the sale of the most harmful corrosive substances to under 18s. This is intended to be similar to the existing knife legislation and is in response to the significant proportion of young offenders. Introducing this offence would make it harder for under 18s to obtain the type of harmful substances that have been used as weapons to inflict life-changing injuries.

Knife crime

Knife crime has increased by 20% in the last year, prompting the government to look again at key legislation. Possession of a knife increased by 23% in the same period.

In a positive step to stem the flow of knives onto the streets, new changes in the law will make it an offence to deliver knives sold online to a private residential address. All future online purchases will have to be delivered to a collection address where the age of the purchaser can be verified.

Offensive Weapons

Possession of offensive weapons in a public place is already a criminal offence, but changes to the law will see some 19 specified items, including flick knives and push daggers, prohibited in private places as well. Also, there will be a new definition of ‘flick knife’ to broaden the number of weapons that are classified into this category.

The government is proposing some limited defences to these possession offences, such as for cultural, artistic or religious use, and exemptions such as museum displays.

School Premises

It is already an aggravated offence to possess knives and offensive weapons on school premises. However, the definition of ‘school premises’ does not currently cover further education establishments such as sixth form colleges or universities. This definition will be expanded to ensure these institutions are also covered by the legislation.


The government intends to amend the existing offence of threatening with an article with blade or point or an offensive weapon set out in section 139AA of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. The law currently requires that the threat carried an immediate risk of serious physical harm to the other person.

The government is proposing to strengthen this offence so that the offence is committed when the victim reasonably fears they would be likely to suffer serious physical harm. This test will be based on how a reasonable person would respond to such a threat, and not whether the victim was objectively at risk of immediate serious physical harm.


The government has identified two particular types of firearms of concern: large calibre (0.50) rifles; and rapid firing rifles. Both types of firearms are currently available for civilian use under general licensing arrangements, but there are concerns about their potential for serious misuse and loss of life if they were to fall into the wrong hands. It is proposed that these two types of firearms should be subject to the stricter controls under the existing provisions of Section 5 of the Firearms Act 1968, which prohibit a number of types of firearms from civilian use.

Driving Offences

It is proposed that the maximum penalty for causing death by dangerous driving, or causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs, be increased to a life sentence in the most serious cases.

If this change is implemented, it will lead to new sentencing guidelines being issued that will likely increase the typical sentence in all cases that involve fatalities on the roads. However, it is difficult to envisage circumstances that would ever merit a sentence of life imprisonment and in practice such cases will be extremely rare.

There is also a proposal to create a new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving. This is likely to be one of the most controversial proposals as there is friction between the lower level of culpability and unintended (or unforeseen) harm. For example, one might face a very significant sentence for a momentary and fairly minor lapse in concentration, where unfortunately serious injury occurred as a result.


The government is rightly responding to emerging trends in criminal behaviour and appears to want to send out a tough message, particularly to young offenders thinking about getting involved in violence with weapons.

It must be remembered however that sentencing is a case-specific exercise where the personal mitigation of the defendant must also be considered. There are often significant factors in an offender’s background, or connected with the commission of an offence, that can reduce a sentence.

It is our job to present the best possible defence, or, where a guilty plea is inevitable or a finding of guilt is made, to mitigate effectively to obtain the lowest sentence possible.

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