A justice system that works is one where mistakes can be easily, and fairly painlessly, corrected. The worst mistakes are wrongful convictions, but wrong sentences can also have devastating consequences on people’s lives. If individuals are imprisoned, when they should have got a community sentence, or are sentenced to more years in prison than is proportionate for their crimes, the harm done is immense. Sentences which are overturned and reduced get less publicity than wrongful convictions, and probably inspire less public sympathy. But there must be an effective means of appealing such sentences if the system is to retain credibility.
In 2013 Dr Jessica Jacobson reviewed the data on criminal appeals to sentence and asked some legal practitioners how well the system was working. Not very, was the answer. Legal aid fees for appeal work were a key concern. Solicitors were paid only £170 to prepare an appeal to a Magistrates’ Court sentence. Due to the low fees, less scrupulous lawyers may have only been paying lip service in telling clients of their right to appeal. Also many defendants, however unfair they think their sentence, can’t face the court process again.
Did the relatively low number of appeals to sentence indicate that sentences were generally right? Or did it merely signal how great were the disincentives to appealing? And how adequate are the systems by which magistrates and judges can learn from successful appeals against their sentences? This short study highlights some important concerns which are undoubtedly still relevant today.