Sentencing at the Old Bailey

A DEFENDANT sentenced to less than four years only has to serve half of their sentence before being eligible for parole. For sentences of four years and over, the defendant has to serve at least two-thirds of the sentence before they are considered for release. Recent legislation has brought in a ‘two strikes and you are out’ rule. Offenders with a previous conviction for a serious crime, such as rape or robbery, now receive an automatic life term, unless they can prove their case is ‘exceptional’.


TREASON: The death penalty for this offence was abolished in 1990, setting the punishment for treason at life imprisonment, with parole in not less than forty years.  The last time the death penalty was considered in the case of the IRA bomber Patrick McGee, who blew up the Grand Hotel in Brighton during the Conservative Party Conference in 1984. However, it was decided that if he were convicted of the charge it would turn him into a martyr and aggravate the Irish problem.

MURDER: A person convicted of murder always receives a mandatory life sentence. But life does not usually mean life. Only the most dangerous killers, usually those who have killed more than one person, like the Yorkshire Ripper, will spend the rest of their lives behind bars.

Recent guidelines set down by The Lord Chief Justice stipulate that a murderer should serve a minimum of 15 years before being eligible for parole. If the defendant pleads guilty he (or she) is entitled to a one-third reduction of this term. In sentencing, the Judge uses the 15 years as a starting point, taking into account aggravating or mitigating features (like a plea of guilty) before deciding on what tariff to set.

MANSLAUGHTER: The maximum sentence is life. However, in practice, sentences vary widely. At the bottom end of the scale you have, for example, company bosses who have been convicted after one or more of their employees or members of the public have died through their negligence. In these cases a heavy fine is usually imposed. At the top end of the scale you can have mass killers, who due to mental illness have killed more than one person. These offenders are usually sentenced to a period in a secure hospital like Broadmoor.  Many Old Bailey murder trial juries are asked to decide if a person is mad or bad. If they believe the defendant is mentally-ill they are told to acquit of murder and return a verdict of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. These offenders usually get sent to a secure hospital like Broadmoor indefinitely.

ATTEMPTED MURDER: The maximum sentence is life, however very few people get convicted of this offence. This is because the charge is very hard to prove. Unlike in murder, where the prosecution only have to prove an intention to cause really serious harm, in attempted murder an intention to kill has to be proved. Those convicted usually receive very long sentences. A defendant using a knife would receive between 15 and 18 years, and if a gun is involved the sentence would probably start at 20 years. Most defendants end up being found guilty of wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm when facing this charge.

RAPE: The maximum sentence for rape is life. The least sentence a convicted rapist can expect is five years. A typical example of a rapist being given the minimum five-year term would involve a man raping his ex-girlfriend without the use of violence, only threats. Life sentences tend only to be passed in the classic type of case of a man jumping out of bushes armed with a knife, or multiple rape attacks.

ROBBERY: The maximum sentence is life. However, usually robbers receive a fixed-term jail sentences. The use of a weapon like a gun greatly increases the sentence. An armed robber would usually receive at least 10 years. The number of offences and the violence used also substantially increases the sentence a convicted robber can expect to receive. The most serious cases of robbery can result in sentences of 25 years or more.

DEATH BY DANGEROUS DRIVING: The maximum sentence is 10 years. These are often very difficult cases for a judge. This is because they usually involve an otherwise law-abiding member of the public who has, through excessive speed, momentary road rage or drink killed someone in a car accident. In my 30-years-plus experience of the Old Bailey, judges have been criticised most often in these types of cases. The family of the dead person is never happy with the sentence and is oftem willing to speak out against it.

THEFT: The maximum sentence is seven years. The difference between robbery and theft is that theft involves the stealing of valuables without the use of force. The amount stolen and whether a breach of trust was involved, for instance when a trusted employee steals from his company, have a heavy bearing on the length of sentence.

DRUGS OFFENCES: For trafficking in Class A drugs (heroin, cocaine etc) a convicted drugs dealer/importer would usually receive between 10 and 14 years. The sentence rises or falls depending on the scale of the drug dealing and the drug’s purity, and also how high up the chain the defendant is in the drugs-smuggling operation. Drug couriers receive much lesser sentences than those they are working for.

FRAUD: For the most serious cases involving over one million pounds, where for instance pensioners were tricked out of their savings, sentences of 10 years and upwards are imposed. The sentences are completely dependent on the scale of the fraud, how long it was operated, the amount taken and the suffering caused to the losers. An average sentence for a fraud involving a sum between £100,000 and £250,000 would be in the range of three-to-four years.

Anthony Sawoniuk_Kenneth Noye_John Duffy_Learco Chindamo
Clockwise from top left: Nazi war criminal Anthony Sawoniuk, gangland boss and murderer Kenneth Noye, multiple rapist and killer John Duffy and murderer Learco Chindamo,


Anthony Sawoniuk: Convicted in 1999 for the murder of two Jews during World War II, in the UK’s first full Nazi war crimes trial. Sawoniuk died in prison in 2005.

Kenneth Noye: career criminal and gangland boss jailed for life in 2000 for the ‘road rage’ murder of 21-year-old Stephen Cameron in 1996.

John Duffy: the ‘railway rapist’ or ‘railway killer’. Jailed in 1988 for a series of rapes and murders in the 1980s. He and his accomplice, David Mulcahy, attacked their victims near railways.

Learco Chindamo: Chindamo was just 16 years old when he was convicted of murdering popular headteacher Philip Lawrence in 1995. He was sentenced to 14 years in jail, and was released in 2010.