A lot of the talk about the release of Munir Hussain, the law of self-defence and the functioning of the courts this week has missed several points. Why, people ask, didn’t the judges take account of the anguish Hussain was in following the attack on his family? Why does the law not allow you to do what you feel is needed to defend yourself? If the Court of Appeal could free Hussain this week, people ask, why didn’t the original judge do so in the first place? And doesn’t this all go to show we have to “clarify” the law to redress the balance in favour of householders?

When I wrote about the case just before Christmas (or rather, in my defence, about Chris Grayling’s misconceived policy proposals triggered by publicity about the case) A Basu drew attention to the transcript of the judge’s sentencing, which makes interesting reading. Judge John Reddihough made clear the case was not about self-defence

The prosecution rightly made it plain that there was no allegation against you, Munir Hussain, in respect of the force you used against Salem in defending your own home and family or of the force used by either of you in apprehending Salem.

in fact, Munor Hussain never even pleaded self-defence

Of course, it is to be noted that it was never suggested by you or on your behalf in the trial that there was any justification for the attack upon Salem. You simply claimed that you were not involved in it.

So the jury never actually had to decide whether the force he used was reasonable. The issue for them seems to have been one of identification: whether or not he was there. This is yet one more illustration of the fact that reporting of criminal cases is often misleading and it is unfair to fulminate against out-of-touch judges without knowing the full details.

Then we get to the meat of the sentencing decision:

The sentencing guidelines for this offence, the maximum sentence for which is life imprisonment, indicate that usually when such serious injuries result from such an offence, a very long sentence of imprisonment of seven years or more should be imposed after a trial. Whilst I must have regard for those guidelines, I also have to have in mind the particular and unusual circumstances of this case and all the mitigating factors. I have had regard, too, to relevant reported Court of Appeal cases, including R v Smith (2009), R v Fazal (2005), R v Lindley (2009) and A-G Reference 83 of 2001. Immediately before you both committed this offence, Munir Hussain and his family had been the victims in their own home of a very serious and frightening criminal offence. In my judgement, there was a high degree of provocation which led to this offence being committed and to you both acting out of character…

The prison sentences I pass upon you are very significantly shorter than would have otherwise been imposed by reason of the degree of provocation involved and the other strong mitigating factors to which I have referred.

So the judge did take provocation into account. The reference to the sentencing guidelines is also interesting. They make clear that 3 years is the very bottom of the sentencing range for the offence Munir Hussain committed (page 13 of the pdf). The judge arguably went beyond that, reducing the sentence further because of provocation even though the guidelines don’t point that way. They say provocation should be taken into account (see para. 31 of the pdf)

when sentencing an offender who claims to have been provoked into committing an offence against the person

which was not the case here: Munir Hussain claimed not to have been there at all. So the judge, who was legally obliged to take account of the guidelines under section 172 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 went as far as he reasonably could in Hussain’s favour, even bending the guidelines to achieve leniency.

Why, though, did he not suspend the sentence, as the Court of Appeal did? The reason is that he couldn’t. Section 189 of the same Criminal Justice Act 2003 provides that imprisonment can only be suspended if ordered for less than a year ( to be precise, I think 51 weeks has been amended to 12 months, but I can’t track down the amending provision). You can see, if you look at the guidelines closely, why the judge felt unable to drive the sentence down quite that low. The Court of Appeal (I’ve not seen the judgment yet) clearly felt able to go further, and reduce the sentence to twelve months – at which point the option to suspend became available.

Why are the sentencing guidelines there? Because politicians want to ensure consistency in sentencing, believing (perhaps with some justification – I’m not against the guidelines) that judges cannot safely be allowed too much discretion. Why is section 189 there? because politicians wanted to stop judges from suspending prison sentences for offenders like Munir Hussain. Presumably because they thought judges were being too lenient and needed to be made more firm.

If there’s a problem here, the answer is not more meddling by politicians, straitjacketing the judges trying to do justice in the individual cases before them, whose multifarious variety well exceeds the imaginations of MPs and the surely and how come merchants in the press who egg them on to unwise action.

2010-01-22T14:31:08+00:00Tags: |