Sentencing

Criminal sentencing - image of interior of old prison

Criminal sentencing and prison sentences are obviously a major concern for anyone accused of serious crime.

We understand that. Our aim is always to achieve the best result for our clients. Depending on the case, or more importantly on the state of the evidence, we may be striving to achieve a Not Guilty verdict, or alternatively we may be trying to reduce the level of sentence which is imposed.

The Sentencing Process

In every case the Court when setting a sentence will look at a number of different things:

  • The seriousness of the case (how the murder was committed; how much cocaine there was…)
  • The role of the different defendants (a leader; a courier; a lookout…)
  • The culpability of the defendants (became involved accidentally; knew what they were doing because they set it up…)
  • Whether there was a Guilty Plea or a conviction after trial
  • The record (antecedent history) of the defendants (no previous convictions; old irrelevant convictions; recent convictions; on licence for the same type of offence…)
  • Any previous sentencing guideline cases, or definitive written sentencing guidelines

Before passing sentence the Judge will consider an opening speech from Prosecution Counsel. This will set out the respective roles of the defendants and any other relevant features.

Each defendant is then assisted by a plea in mitigation from his or her own advocate. The defence team will aim to set out features which make a defendant’s role less serious or which may make the Judge reduce the sentence to be imposed.

In the course of mitigating, the defence may refer to letters from the defendant, letters, testimonials or references from other people who can speak highly of a defendant or show them in a different light, along with the evidence in the case and any basis of plea.

Image of interior of old prison (Kilmainham Gaol, Ireland)

In addition to the above, there may be a Pre-Sentence Report (PSR) from the Probation Service. This is prepared by a Probation Officer who would interview the defendant to ascertain their attitude to the offence and offending in general, and to gather information about their personal circumstances and background. The Probation Service would examine whether they are likely to re-offend, and the likely consequences if they do. There may also be a recommendation of a particular sentence, although the Judge is not bound to follow this and often will not do so.


It is very important that defendants think carefully about what they say to Probation when preparing the PSR. If the attitude appears to be disrespectful or careless Probation are likely to consider that re-offending is more likely or that the defendant is not really sorry for what they have done. A good PSR can help a great deal, but on the other hand a poor or even bad PSR can do a lot of harm.

At the end of the hearing the Judge will announce the sentence to be imposed on each defendant. In more serious cases this will usually be a custodial sentence, and each defendant will serve around half of the time announced actually in prison. The remainder is on licence, which means that a person is released from custody but placed under supervision by the Probation Service, so if they offend during the licence period, or breach the licence conditions, they may be recalled to prison and required to serve more time.

All defendants are entitled to be advised on whether their conviction and sentence can be appealed. If there is an appeal and it is successful, the new sentence imposed by the Court of Appeal takes the place of the old one. For more information see the section on appeals.