We have covered the case of Ian Watkins on several occasions on the blog so far. Most recently on the 23rd July 2014 when his appeal against conviction was dismissed.
On 31st July, with commendable swiftness, the judgment of the Court of Appeal was published. It is certainly worth reading in full
The main points that were put forward were that firstly there should have been greater discount for the plea of guilty and, secondly, that the sentence was simply too long.
The Court of Appeal did not find it too difficult to reject these grounds. The circumstances of the offending were utterly horrific, and a long prison sentence was absolutely inevitable. The nature of the offences committed was so far outside the usual range, that it is difficult to criticise it.
I can see the argument that greater credit should have been given, but equally, it can’t be said that the trial Judge got it wrong, so the Court of Appeal’s finding on that is also unsurprising.
What the sentence means
The casual observer may be quite surprised at the contents of paras 4-7. In this it is clear that there was a dispute as to what the actual sentence was. How is it that, in one of the most high profile cases of the year where the public gallery was full of journalists, there can be a confusion as to what the sentence was?
The answer lies in the fact that current sentencing practice is needless complicated. Successive governments have spewed forth changes to legislation at the drop of a tabloid headline, which has lead to a situation of nearly continual revolution.
What was the issue? It revolved around the sentences on the following counts:
- Count 1 – attempted oral rape – 15 years
- Count 2 – attempted anal rape – 15 years, concurrent
- Count 8 – aiding and abetting assault by penetration – 14 years, consecutive
- Count 9 – conspiracy to rape – 14 years, concurrent with Count 8
The Judge stated that an extended sentence would be passed. What he actually said was :
The sentences on counts 1 and 2 will be 15 years. The sentences on counts 8 and 9 will be 14 years consecutive. Custodial term 29 years.
There will be an extended period of licence under section 226A of 6 years on those counts.
All other sentences will be concurrent. Your total sentence is therefore one of 35 years.
In your case that means you will have to serve 2/3 of the custodial term before you can be considered for release by the Parole Board. If you are released you will remain on licence for the extended period.
The Court of Appeal noted that this was ambiguous. To what sentence does the extension apply? Is it all four, in which case the sentence is 29 years plus 6 years, so Mr Watkins has to 2/3 of 29 years – 19 1/3 years.
Or, is it a determinate sentence of 15 years on Counts 1 and 2, consecutive to an extended sentence of 14 years with 6 years extension. In which case Mr Watkins has to serve 7½ years (half the 15 years determinate) followed by 2/3 of the 14 years (which is 9 1/3 years) for a total of 16 5/6 years?
This makes a difference of 2½ years. A very big difference. There are in fact other ways of interpreting the remarks, but those are the main two…
The Court of Appeal concluded that it was the latter meaning. It also means that Mr Watkins has to serve (depending on the Parole Board of course) 2½ less than he thought. So, although Mr Watkins lost the appeal, he ended up getting a reduction in sentence of more than most successful appellants.
Was the Court of Appeal right? Yes and no, we would suggest. Yes because there are good reasons that the first way of phrasing the sentence is unlawful and it is a general principle that where there is an ambiguity, the benefit of the doubt should go the defendant.
And ‘no’, because we would suggest that it is clear from the Judge’s sentencing remarks that he talked of an extended sentence attaching to a custodial period of 29 years, meaning that the first interpretation is what the Judge wanted.
It should be a matter of concern that sentencing has got so complicated that this sort of ambiguity can occur. This can be addressed by a proper sentencing code and a bit of self-restraint from Parliament. That is of course unlikely.
Right thinking members of the public would probably be surprised that something so important as how long someone serves can be changed by a matter of years depending on how the sentence is announced.
Had the Judge said that he would pass a ‘global’ sentence on Counts 1, 2, 8 and 9 of 29 years with a 6 year extension period, Mr Watkins could not have complained. But he would now be serving an extra 2½ in prison.
Instead of legislating for more nonsense such as Alcohol Abstinence Orders, Parliament could look at the Frankenstein monster that they have created with the current sentencing regime.