New sentencing guidelines for the offence of perverting the course of justice will come into effect next month. These guidelines will apply to all defendants sentenced from 1st October 2023 onwards, irrespective of the date of the offence.
Perverting the course of justice
The offence of perverting the course of justice is committed when an accused:
The course of justice starts when:
The offence is contrary to common law and triable only on indictment.
A wide range of acts may constitute the offence, some obvious examples include:
This wide range of acts and circumstances which may constitute the offence has led to considerable difficulty for practitioners when advising clients as to the likely length of sentence they can expect if convicted.
In the absence of sentencing guidelines, the sentencing authorities were reviewed in Abdulwahab  EWCA Crim 1399. At paragraph 14 of the judgment, a number of relevant principles were identified:
Although the maximum sentence is life imprisonment, the sentencing range contained within the guideline is from a community order to 7 years’ custody.
The structure is similar to other guidelines.
Step 1 – Culpability and Harm
Culpability is determined by weighing up all the factors in the case and can be demonstrated by one or more of the following:
A – High culpability
B – Medium culpability
C – Lower culpability
Harm is assessed by weighing up all the factors in this case:
Step 2 – Starting point and category range
Having determined the category at step one, the court will use the corresponding starting point to reach a sentence within the category ranges available.
The most serious offences – category 1A cases – have a starting point of 4 years’ custody, with a range of 2 – 7 years’ custody.
The least serious offences – category 3C cases – have a starting point of 6 months’ custody, with a range of a high level community order – 9 months’ custody.
The guideline then sets out a non-exhaustive list of aggravating and mitigating factors, all of which will be familiar to practitioners from other guidelines.
3 – Prosecution assistance (s.74 Sentencing Act 2020)
4 – Reduction for guilty pleas (s.73 Sentencing Act 2020)
5 – Totality principle (Totality guideline)
6 – Compensation and ancillary orders
7 – Reasons (s.52 Sentencing Act 2020)
8 – Consideration for time spent on bail (s.240 Criminal Justice Act 2003 and s.325 Sentencing Act 2020)
These steps reflect the usual process of applying reductions to any sentence reached within the category range and mirror the process in other similar guidelines.
The culpability and harm factors in the guideline echo those factors identified in Abdulwahab as relevant to assessing the seriousness of the offending. With accompanying category starting points and ranges, the guideline should ensure greater consistency in the application of those factors and the court’s approach to sentencing.
However, the sentences imposed in two recent high-profile cases concerning false allegations of crimes, Ahmed  EWCA Crim 1786 and Beech  EWCA Crim 1850 (10 and 15 years’ imprisonment respectively), are a reminder that very serious offences of perverting the course of justice can properly attract sentences in double figures, which will mean that in such particularly serious cases judges will need to impose sentences, with reasons, which eclipse the Guideline.
It is no surprise that the starting point for all the categories in the guideline is a custodial sentence, which reflects the first of the principles identified in Abdulwahab, namely that deterrence is an important aim in sentencing for offences of perverting the course of justice.
It also worth noting that the lowest of these category ranges includes a high level community order. While these cases will undoubtedly be rare, the guideline affords judges the possibility of dealing with certain lower-level cases by avoiding a custodial sentence where appropriate.
Overall, practitioners will welcome the certainty that the guideline brings when advising clients on sentence in cases involving the offence of perverting the course of justice.
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