11 June, 2012
Amicus Horizon v James Thornley (Court of Appeal, 30 May 2012)
The Court of Appeal has provided some long awaited clarity regarding the approach to be taken when sentencing defendants who breach anti social behaviour injunctions. The Court stated that the Sentencing Guidelines Council's guidance for breach of ASBOs should be followed.
Mr Thornley was a social tenant of a flat in a sheltered housing scheme. Possession proceedings were begun due to complaints made against him by other residents. The County Court also made an interim Anti Social Behaviour Injunction with a Power of Arrest. Mr Thornley was arrested for alleged breaches of the injunction. He was then released on bail pending trial of the possession, injunction and committal claims. During that time, he was arrested again on further allegations of breach, and released on bail again.
Mr Thornley denied all of the allegations at trial, but the Judge found four of the alleged breaches proved to the necessary criminal standard of "beyond reasonable doubt". The breaches mainly concerned entering the residents' common room, being drunk and abusive, and swearing at a variety of people on different occasions. The Judge gave immediate custodial sentences of between two and four months each, which were to be served concurrently so that Mr Thornley would effectively serve a total sentence of four months.
Anti Social Behaviour practitioners will be well aware that the sentencing range in such situations is very broad, and that sentences can be very unpredictable. Mr Thornley's punishment certainly fell at the harsh end of the spectrum, considering that no actual violence was used.
Mr Thornley successfully appealed the decision in the Court of Appeal, which gave clearer guidance on the approach to be adopted. The Court stated that the SGC's guidelines for breach of ASBO were equally applicable to breach of ASBI.
The Court went on to consider the sentences in light of the SGC guidelines. The Court agreed that an immediate prison term was justified due to the likelihood of further breaches, and that the breach of bail was an aggravating factor. However, the breaches in themselves were at the lower end of the spectrum and four months was excessive. Immediate custodial sentences of 6 weeks were substituted in each case, to run concurrently.
Whilst the landlord was unsuccessful in this appeal, the Court's clarification of sentencing guidelines should be cautiously welcomed as it will enable all parties and County Court judges to have a better idea of the likely sentence to be imposed for a given breach. However, it is to be hoped that the use of the SGC guidelines does not become a litigants' charter for appealing sentences on technical grounds, or restricting the ability of County Court judges to impose lengthy sentences where these are justified as a deterrent measure. The County Courts have consistently proved themselves very capable of punishing anti social tenants effectively and fairly, so any interference with this would be a great loss for social landlords.