Criminal Justice Bill: briefing note

This article was co-authored by Joseph Thomas, Corporate Affairs Assistant. 

The Criminal Justice Bill, introduced to the House of Commons on 14 November 2023, comes amid a backdrop of low public trust in the criminal justice system. The refusal of offenders to attend sentence hearings in high profile cases, such as the trials of Lucy Letby and Thomas Cashma, have sparked public outrage. This is in addition to media reports about overcrowded prisons, fuelling the perception of a prison system on the verge of collapse.

To address these concerns, the government's new Bill includes a slew of reforms that expand judges' authority to compel attendance at sentence hearings, allow for the transfer of prisoners to foreign prisons, and strengthen police powers.

Who’s affected?  

As well as anyone working in the criminal justice or prison systems, the Bill has the potential to affect the general public, as new investigative police powers gives the police increased powers to enter people's homes and conduct investigations.

The Bill also has the potential to impact corporations and partnerships by expanding the "identification doctrine", making these organisations more accountable for the criminal actions of their senior managers.

Key aims and benefits of the Bill

The briefing notes to 2023’s King's Speech and the Bill's factsheet outline the government's stated goals for the legislation, namely forcing criminals to face the consequences of their actions, strengthening police powers, and increasing public trust in policing. This will include:

  1. Compelling defendants to attend their sentencing hearings
  2. Creating new offences
  3. Imposing tougher sentences for violent and sexual crime
  4. The right for police to conduct warrantless searches of homes suspected of containing stolen goods
  5. The power to transfer prisoners to foreign prisons and the creation of new offenses.

Key measures of the Bill

The legislation will be wide-ranging with new measures including:

Compelling attendance at sentencing: The Bill's headline measure, clause 22, will empower Crown Court judges to compel defendants to attend their sentencing hearings.  Failure to do so without a “reasonable” excuse will be punishable by a two-year custodial sentence.

Judges can already sentence non-attendees to prison under contempt laws, but this power is rarely used. The purpose of this new provision is to make it clear that the expectation is that individuals should attend their sentencing.

New offences: The Bill will introduce a litany of new offences including:

  • Possession or supply of a sim farm, defined as a device capable of using five or more SIM cards simultaneously or interchangeably, unless for "lawful reasons" that it is the defendant's obligation to prove
  • Encouraging self-harm, whether online or in person, punishable by five years in prison
  • Expanding the “identification doctrine” so that when a senior manager of a corporate body or partnership, acting in this capacity, commits a criminal act, the organisation also commits the offense.

Harsher sentences: The Bill imposes tougher sentences for violent and sexual crime. In England and Wales possession of an offensive weapon will be made punishable by up to two-years in prison. In murder cases where a relationship’s end is a factor, this will be considered as an “aggravating factor” with longer sentences. Similarly grooming will be viewed as an “aggravating factor” in child sex offenses.

Expansion of police powers: The police will be able to: conduct searches of premises suspected of containing stolen goods without a warrant, and seize and destroy bladed articles found on public property.

The Bill also includes the creation of a scheme where the government will work with the financial sector to use funds in accounts suspended on suspicion of criminal activity to finance projects tackling economic crime.

Transfers to foreign prisons: Clauses 25-29 allow for prisoners detained in English and Welsh prisons to be transferred to foreign prisons. The Secretary of State will appoint a controller to oversee and report on the operation of these foreign prisons, as well as their repatriation. However, the Secretary of State will retain the authority to negotiate and renegotiate prisoner transfer agreements.

Reaching Royal Assent

It is not mandatory for the government to deliver all of the bills contained in the King’s Speech. Nevertheless, from a political standpoint, the government will want to be seen to commit to its legislative agenda, especially tackling crime which features as a key priority ahead of the next general election.

This Bill includes many controversial sections that give the Labour Party and the House of Lords the opportunity to oppose, debate and ultimately delay the Bill . For example, the sending of British prisoners to foreign jurisdictions raises questions over sovereignty and whether this violates Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

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