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R v VT: Children should not be sentenced simply as ‘cut-down’ adults

R v VT  [2021] EWCA Crim 166

The Solicitor General appealed against the imposition of a youth rehabilitation order for a 15-year old convicted of wounding with intent. Dismissing the appeal, the Court of Appeal confirmed that when sentencing children, the court should not approach children as ‘cut-down’ versions of adults and, in the particular circumstances of this serious case, a non-custodial sentence was just within the range of appropriate orders.  This case demonstrate the significant impact that a thorough and detailed pre-sentence report can have.

Details

The defendant, VT, was found guilty in both the Youth Court and on appeal in the Crown Court of leading a group knife attack upon another child some 21 months before he finally came to be sentenced. In an attack that had been filmed, the defendant stabbed the victim in the back, penetrating into muscle to a depth of 10 centimetres with the intention, the court found, to cause really serious harm.

At sentence, the Youth Offending Team’s report, described by the trial judge and seconded in the Court of Appeal as, ‘extremely good […] insightful and helpful’ detailed VT’s positive response to supervision in the time between offence and sentence, his plans to continue to further education, the support of his family and his remorse at his behaviour.  The author was of the view that VT understood the seriousness of the offence and that this was an isolated and out of character incident. He had no previous convictions, had not offended since and had amassed a number of positive character references. Whereas a custodial sentence would expose him to those with more entrenched criminal behaviours, he would benefit and was motivated to continue community supervision. Despite the facts of the offence, the particular circumstances of the offender were such that the Court felt able to impose a youth rehabilitation order.

On appeal, the Solicitor General argued that a youth rehabilitation order in a case such as this was unduly lenient, as demonstrated by the significant custodial sentence an adult would necessarily receive for such an offence. The submissions on behalf of the Solicitor General referred to the sentencing guidelines for adults convicted of such an offence.  The Court of Appeal disagreed. There is no requirement to consider the adult sentencing guideline when dealing with a child. In this case, the sentencing judge had properly followed the guideline for sentencing children and heeded the primacy of rehabilitation and the child’s welfare (paragraphs 31 and 36).

Commentary

The Court of Appeal once again reiterated the significance of the different approach to sentencing adults and children:

‘those sentencing children and young persons should not regard the young offender as, so to speak, a ‘cut down’ version of the adult offender, or approach the case as if the offender were a mature adult and then merely make an adjustment of sentence to reflect youth’ (paragraph 32).

Nevertheless, the imposition of a community sentence in a case such as this is unusual. The Court of Appeal noted that VT ‘could not have complained if the judge had imposed a custodial sentence’. The judge’s detailed knowledge of the child’s particular circumstances appears to have been a significant determining factor in the approach taken. The Court of Appeal had the further benefit of an updated report, which confirmed that VT continued to make positive progress under supervision. For practitioners, perhaps the greatest takeaway is the importance of a detailed pre-sentence report – one means by which the Court can obtain sufficient information to see not only the offender, but the child.

 

Ruth Broadbent

QEB Hollis Whiteman