How Well do Sentencing Guidelines Work?: Equity, Proportionality and Consistency in the Determination of Fine Levels in the Magistrates' Courts of England and Wales



Abstract: This article considers the scope and potential of sentencing guidelines specifically in relation to the imposition of financial penalties by the courts. Evidence is presented from research with the judiciary in England on the challenge of ensuring equity (that is, equality of impact) in the burden of such penalties, proportionality in relation to the relative seriousness of different offences, and consistency in the pattern of fine levels between individual sentencers and in different courts. The research explored how magistrates and district judges went about deciding levels of penalty to impose in a series of structured fines sentencing exercises and highlighted some of the difficulties in developing a satisfactory methodology to achieve an acceptable balance between the three objectives of achieving equity, proportionality and consistency. Key among the research findings was the prime importance in sentencers' perceptions of ‘proportionality’, and accordingly the article concludes by considering the consequences of this finding for the design of guidelines on financial penalty-setting.