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.

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

Stuart Hall arriving at Preston Magistrates Court earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images
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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.