A 15 year-old girl (14 at the time of the offence) has been sentenced in Bradford Crown Court to a two-year Youth Rehabilitation Order after pleading guilty to causing grievous bodily harm with intent. She went around to the house of a man who had sexually abused her seven years earlier, and deliberately stabbed him in the chest, in front of his two young children, narrowly avoiding killing him.
In highly unusual and personal sentencing remarks, the judge apparently stated that it would be disgrace to send her to prison after what she had suffered previously from the victim, and further refused to make a mandatory victim surcharge, apparently stating: "If anyone tries to force you, I will pay it myself."
When a court passes a sentence it must also order that the relevant surcharge is paid. The amount of the surcharge depends on the sentence and whether, at the time of the offence, the offender was an adult or a youth. The surcharge in this case, would have been £15. The judge would only have a discretion to reduce the surcharge to nil if the girl was unable to pay. This does not appear to have been suggested by the girl's counsel. Revenue raised from the victim surcharge is used to fund various victim services that assist victims and witnesses.
The judge appears to have scored full marks in the court of public opinion, both for his "common sense" and for his empathy. As the girl had suffered terribly at the hands of the victim in this case, the judge inferred the victim may have been dealt with overly leniently in his own sentencing for abusing the girl when she was eight-years-old. But there are some dissenting voices and notes of concern.
Could the Judge's comments and non-custodial sentence give others who may feel aggrieved by a perpetrator who has "got off" the encouragement to take matters into their own hands and mete out punishment?
Is it really appropriate to the office he holds (putting aside the lawfulness or otherwise of the judge waiving the surcharge) for the judge to offer to pay for the victim surcharge should the court come after the girl for payment?
Could the judge's comments, taken together with the non-custodial sentence he handed down, give others who may feel aggrieved by a perpetrator who has "got off" (in the eyes of the victim), the encouragement to take matters into their own hands and mete out punishment, potentially years later, rather than go to the police?
And does the waiving of the victim surcharge, however nominal the sum may be, send the wrong message to the world at large – and to those who use the courts and expect our judiciary to behave fairly and impartially?
The judge has acted with great compassion, and I don't think anyone would wish such qualities to be absent in those who sit in judgement on us. And the exceptional circumstances of this case demonstrate the reasons why allowing judges' discretion in sentencing is a vital asset in ensuring a punishment may fit the crime and all the surrounding facts that led to its commission.
But ponder this: two young children, traumatised at witnessing their father stabbed in the chest in their own home, grow up, seething with anger and indignation at what they may have suffered, with a court system they feel has let down their family. They then seek vengeance on the girl who scarred their father for life, or on the judge who (in their eyes) "let her off" and offered to pay her fine. Let us hope that never happens. But could this kind of compassion have unintended consequences that no-one would wish to see.
Adam Glass is a Partner in the Disputes Resolution department of Lewis Silkin, and was formerly a criminal barrister.