In a Magistrates Court sentence will be decided by three magistrates or a single district judge. The maximum sentence available in a Magistrates Court is 26 weeks in prison per offence, and a maximum total of 52 weeks in prison. If the powers of the Magistrates Court are not enough then a person will be sent to the Crown Court, where a Crown Court Judge will decide the sentence. A Jury never decides the sentence to be imposed.

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In all sentencing cases there are essentially three types of sentence available; a fine, a community order or a prison sentence. If a person would otherwise be given a prison sentence of 2 years or less then the prison sentence might be suspended. This means that the person will not actually go to prison as long as they stay out of trouble and comply with other community requirements.

If a person pleads guilty they will receive a discount on their sentence. This is because it saves, time money and hassle if those who are guilty plead guilty. A person who pleads guilty straight away will usually receive a discount of one third. A person who pleads not guilty to start with but changes their plea later might receive a discount of 10% or 20%.

The Sentencing Guidelines Council publishes sentencing guidelines to help every court impose consistent sentences for like offending. The court must usually follow these guidelines, although the guidelines allow for sufficient flexibility to ensure that justice and fairness can be done to each case. The guidelines work by giving a ‘starting point’ sentence and then a sentence range for each category of offence. This is the ballpark sentence for each level of offence within this type of offending.

In cases of illegal images of children, the seriousness of the offence will be determined by the nature of the images and what was being done with them. There are three categories of image, with Category A images being the most serious, then Category B then Category C. A person may be in possession of the images, distributing the images or producing the images. Thus as a starting point the most serious offender will produce Category A images. The least serious offender will possess Category C images. The table of likely sentences therefore looks like this:

  Possession Distribution Production
Category A Starting point
1 year's custody 3 years' custody 6 years' custody
Category range
26 weeks' - 3 years' custody 2 - 5 years' custody 4 - 9 years' custody
Category B Starting point
26 weeks' custody 1 year's custody 2 years' custody
Category range
High level community order - 18 months' custody 26 weeks' - 2 years' custody 1 - 4 years' custody
Category C Starting point
High level community order 13 weeks' custody 18 months' custody
Category range
Medium level community order - 26 weeks' custody High level community order - 26 weeks' custody 1 - 3 years' custody

Once the court has made appropriate adjustments up or down depending on aggravating and mitigating features, the court will then give credit for any guilty plea, at a level in-line with the timing of that plea.

If the sentence at that point is above the custody threshold the court must ask whether a prison sentence is necessary in all the circumstances of the case. Even if a case is serious enough for a prison sentence, a prison sentence need not be given, perhaps because of certain mitigating features or because the offender has shown a commitment and readiness to undergo rehabilitation and therapy. A robust community sentence may be a proper alternative to a prison sentence in such a case.

If the offence is so serious that only a custodial sentence can be justified then if that sentence is two years or less the court must ask whether the sentence can be suspended. The court may suspend a sentence of imprisonment if the circumstances of the offence or the offender make it appropriate to do so. A prison sentence may, for example, be suspended because whilst the offence is so serious the prospects of effective rehabilitation in the community are real and genuine. A person may have work or family commitments that would mean another person would be adversely affected by such a sentence. Each case very much turns on its own facts. If a court suspends a sentence of imprisonment then it can impose any requirement that it might have done under a community order, or impose no requirements other than not to commit a further offence.

If a person is sent to prison they will usually serve a maximum of one half of their sentence in prison, and the remainder on licence to the probation service. They may be released earlier than the halfway stage on tag, under a home detention curfew. More serious offenders, or those who are considered dangerous, may face a different regime.

A community order may include an order to undergo therapy or treatment organised through the probation service. It may also include an order to undertake community service, which is unpaid work in the community. It can also include being ordered to wear a tag with a curfew to remain indoors at your home address for certain hours during the week.

A person convicted of a child image offence may also face being subject to a Sexual Harm Prevention Order, as well as being on the Sex Offender’s Register.

Although the sentencing guidelines have improved consistency and allowed a greater degree of structure around the sentencing process, in reality the way in which various different factors are weighed and balanced makes the exercise very much one of discretion. For example, the weight to be attached to a person’s previous good character or to the fact that they have done considerable and important good deeds in the community is a matter of fine judicial judgment.

At Stone King we believe in thorough preparation for each sentencing exercise, being prepared to evidence key features of mitigation and enhance our submissions through effective documentation, references or other evidence. Understanding the end point of the process is crucial from the beginning to make sure that a client makes the very best decisions at each step of the process.

For confidential and impartial advice, please contact us by calling 01225 485700 or email

The law and practice referred to in this article or webinar has been paraphrased or summarised. It might not be up-to-date with changes in the law and we do not guarantee the accuracy of any information provided at the time of reading. It should not be construed or relied upon as legal advice in relation to a specific set of circumstances.