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Is the outrage over Stuart Hall’s 15-month sentence justified?

There has been anger expressed at Hall receiving “only” 15 months for a series of sex offences, but it must be remembered that the judge was working within the law as it stood when the offences were committed, not as it is now.

Stuart Hall arriving at Preston Magistrates Court earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images

Today Stuart Hall was sentenced for a series of sex offences against girls aged between 9 and 17. The sentence imposed at the Crown Court at Preston was one of 15 months. The response on Twitter was predictable; there was palpable anger at the “disgustingly low” sentences.

Hall pleaded guilty to 14 counts of indecent assault. The offences included at the lower end, kissing with an open mouth and touching over clothing. At the higher end, the activity involved placing a hand on a 10 year-old’s leg whilst she lay in bed and moving it towards her crotch and the digital penetration of a 13 year-old girl. The first offence was committed in 1967 and the last in 1985 or 1986.  

When assessing the sentences, there are several important points to note. First is that Hall falls to be sentenced on the law as it was when he committed the offences, not on the basis of the law now. Sentencing of sexual offences has changed dramatically; attitudes are wildly different and this can be seen, for example, in the way in which rape complainants are protected from cross-examination on the sexual history. Previously, it was deemed “fair game”, but now, society understands that, for example, wearing a short skirt doesn’t mean that a woman was “up for it”. Further, the European Convention on Human Rights Art 7(1) prohibits the imposition of a heavier penalty than one “applicable” at the time of the offence. Fairness dictates that one should know, at the time of the offence, what the maximum sentence is.  That is unarguable.

In that regard, the Judge was significantly restricted in the sentences that he could impose. The maximum sentence for many of Hall’s offences was two years at the time he committed them; for the remainder, the maximum was five years. Since then, the maximum sentences have been raised to 10 years and had these offences been committed today, the sentences would undoubtedly be higher.

The effect of this is that Hall’s offences need to be viewed within the context of those maximum sentences. On a very basic level, if the maximum sentence is two years’ imprisonment, a sentence of two years can be said to roughly represent the worst case of such an offence. In the context of the offence, Hall’s offences are not towards that upper limit and some of them, as the Judge noted, did not pass the custody threshold (requiring a term of imprisonment). In that light, 15 months begins to look more reasonable.

Secondly, many offences are subject to guidelines, issued by the non-governmental quango the Sentencing Council. Many are critical of them (myself included) for the way in which their guidelines arrive at unjust and illogical results. Unfortunately, on this occasion, they are not to blame. The sexual offences guideline only applies to offences charged under the Sexual Offences Act 2003. Hall’s offences were under the Sexual Offences Act 1956. The guideline is therefore only “useful” in terms of the principles it espouses, including the way in which breach of trust (pertinent to Hall) should be viewed in the context of such offences.

Turning to the offences, this type of sentencing exercise presents a difficult mental exercise. The third point to note is the way in which the court assesses such offences. It is necessary, amongst other things, to consider a) the nature of the activity (e.g. the touching, kissing, penetration etc.) b) the age of the victim (here, from 9 to 17) and c) the surrounding facts (for example the position of responsibility or breach of the parent’s trust, who trusted Hall to, in one case, read their child a bedtime story).

The Judge must impose a sentence, within the parameters set by Parliament, that reflects the totality of the offending behaviour. Looking at the features of the offences, it is relevant that Hall is 83 years of age; a sentence of imprisonment will be harder for a man of 83 than 23. It is relevant that the offences were committed a long time ago, and since 1986, there have been no other offences. Of course, it is relevant that Hall pleaded guilty. For that, he received a 25 per cent discount on his sentence (the rationale being that a discount in pleading guilty saves time and money and prevents witnesses having to give evidence, which can be traumatic. Without such a discount, there would be no incentive to plead guilty).

Further points to note are that Hall will be subject to “notification requirements” – colloquially known as the sex offenders register – for a period of 10 years. He will be placed on the list of persons barred from working with children.

Shortly after Mr Hall was sentenced, the Attorney-General confirmed that he would be reviewing the sentences. This involves an assessment of whether he believes they are 'unduly lenient'. If so, he can refer the case to the Court of Appeal and ask them to impose higher sentences. 

One may wish to consider whether it is necessary to lock Mr Hall up for a prolonged period of time. Punishment is of course an aim of sentencing, but so is public protection and rehabilitation. Mr Hall’s reputation is in tatters; he has been humiliated. I question whether a longer sentence would serve any purpose.

Irrespective of whether one agrees with the length of the sentences, in my opinion on the law as it is, the Judge imposed sentences which are neither to short, nor too long.

Lyndon Harris is the Editor of Banks on Sentence