Types of criminal sentencing under UK law

16th July 2019 | Legal Insights & Resources|
Nick Titchener headshot

Nick Titchener

Managing Partner

In Brief

Under UK law, sentences depend not only on the offence but plea, criminal history and personal circumstances. There are five main types: discharge, fines and compensation, driving disqualification or points, community orders and prison sentences. A suspended sentence is usually a community order on the condition that a breach will result in imprisonment. Life sentences make an offender subject to certain conditions for the rest of their life, but not necessarily imprisonment, while a rare ‘whole life term’ means never being released from prison.


Nick Titchener, director and solicitor advocate at Lawtons, discusses:

  • Criminal sentencing
  • How a court decides on a sentence
  • The types of criminal sentences in UK law

If a defendant pleads guilty to an offence or is found guilty after a trial, it follows that there must be a sentence imposed by the court – whether the magistrates’ court or the Crown Court.

Sentencing in the UK – how the court decides

When imposing a sentence in the UK, the court must take into account:

  1. The type of crime
  2. The law and sentencing guidelines
  3. Credit for an early guilty plea
  4. The offender’s criminal history
  5. The offender’s personal and financial circumstances

Advising a client on the potential sentence they face for a specific offence is a vital part of providing a professional legal service. It allows the individual to make an informed decision on their plea and understand the potential outcome of their case.

It is vitally important that you are properly represented for any sentencing hearing. A solicitor will mitigate fully on your behalf to obtain you the best possible sentence. Quality advocacy is often the key to obtaining a ‘good’ result in your case.

Available sentences differ for adults and young people – classified as those aged 10-17.

Types of criminal sentence under UK law

There are five main types of sentence that the court can pass:

  1. Discharge

When the court decides someone is guilty of an offence, but decides not to hand down a criminal conviction at this time, they will be given a ‘discharge’.

Discharges are primarily given for minor offences.

There are two types of discharge:

  • An ‘absolute discharge’ means that no more action will be taken
  • A ‘conditional discharge’ means that the offender won’t be punished unless they commit another offence within a set period of time determined by the court (up to a period of 3 years). If the offender breaches the conditional discharge by committing a further offence within the specified discharge period they can be re-sentenced for the original offence and sentenced additionally for the new offence.
  1. A fine and compensation

Fines are the most common criminal sentence. They’re usually given for less serious crimes that don’t merit a community or prison sentence, or in some circumstances fines are imposed as an alternative to a community sentence.

How much someone is fined depends on the severity of the crime and the offender’s ability to pay.

If the offence causes harm to a victim, the offender can also be required to pay compensation. A compensation order can be imposed as a sentence without any other penalty

  1. Disqualification from driving and penalty points

Any court may disqualify an offender from driving on conviction for any offence, either in addition to or instead of any other sentence. It is not a requirement of disqualification that the offence is connected with the use of a motor vehicle.

Penalty points can be added to the offender’s driver’s licence upon conviction for many motoring offences. Depending on they type of licence held and the number of points imposed, this can lead to an offender being disqualified from driving for a period of time.

  1. A community sentence

Community sentences are imposed for offences which are too serious for a discharge or a fine to be imposed but not so serious that a custodial sentence must be imposed.

Community sentences place requirements on offenders that they must comply with.

The court will decide which combination of these requirements will most effectively punish the offender for their crime, while also reducing the risk of them offending again.

An offender who receives a community sentence can be ordered to undertake one or more of the following requirements:

  • Undertake between 40 and 300 hours of unpaid work
  • Comply with an electronically monitored curfew during hours imposed by the court for a specified period
  • Have regular supervision meetings with a probation officer
  • Complete an accredited programme for issues such as domestic abuse or sexual offending
  • Complete a course of treatment for drug or alcohol addiction
  • Complete a specified activity requirement
  • Comply with a residency requirement
  • Comply with an exclusion requirement
  • Comply with a prohibited activity requirement
  • Comply with a mental health treatment requirement
  • Go to an attendance centre for a specified number of hours. This is only available for offenders aged under 25

If an offender doesn’t adhere to the terms of their community sentence, they can be sent back to court and given an additional requirement or extended requirement or a fine as a punishment. In some circumstances the community sentence can be revoked and the defendant will be re-sentenced.

  1. A prison sentence

Prison sentences are handed down by a court when an offence is so serious that it is deemed to be the only suitable punishment.

A prison sentence will also be given when the court believes the public must be protected from the offender.

There are three different types of prison sentence:

  • Suspended sentence
  • Determinate sentence
  • Indeterminate sentence (including life sentences)


What is a suspended sentence in the UK?

A court may give an adult offender a suspended prison sentence if the time they would otherwise spend in prison is under 12 months. Suspended prison sentences can be suspended for up to two years.

With a suspended sentence, the offender is given a prison sentence but does not go directly to prison. Instead the offender must not commit a further offence during the suspension period and must comply with any community sentence requirement imposed by the court.

If the offender breaches a community sentence requirement attached to the suspended sentence or commits another offence during the suspension period, the court can activate the suspended prison sentence, sending the offender to prison for all or part of the original prison term imposed. Alternatively they can increase the term of the suspended sentence but allow it to continue.


What is a determinate sentence?

If a court fixes the length of a prison sentence, it’s called a determinate sentence. For example, a court may say an offender is sentenced to six years.

When an offender is given a determinate sentence, half of the sentence is served in custody and half of the sentence in the community.

Offenders sentenced to 12 months or longer in prison will be put on licence when they are serving the second part of their sentence. This licence is supervised by the probation service and includes conditions that offenders must meet.

If the offender doesn’t meet the terms of their licence or commits a further offence they can be recalled to prison for part or all of their sentence.

Offenders sentenced to less than two years are released on post-sentence supervision for a period of 12 months, with regular meetings with a probation officer and specified requirements. For example, an offender sentenced to 2 months will serve 1 month in prison, 1 month on licence and 11 months on post sentence supervision. If the offender breaches the supervision they can be punished further.


What is an indeterminate sentence?

A court can give a sentence setting the minimum time the offender must spend in prison. This is called an indeterminate sentence.

For example, a court may say an offender must go to prison ‘for a minimum of ten years’. This minimum period set by the judge is called a tariff.

These sentences are usually given for serious violent offences or sexual offences and where the court considers the offender is a risk to the public.

If an offender is given an indeterminate sentence, they have no automatic right to be released. They will always serve the ‘minimum’ sentence set by the court.

When the minimum time in prison is over the parole board will decide if it is appropriate to release an offender under licence.

What is a life sentence?

A life sentence means the offender will be subject to specific conditions for the rest of their life, but only one of these conditions may be a period of time in prison.

For most life sentences, the judge sets a minimum time the offender will spend in prison before being considered for release on licence by the independent parole board, who assess whether it’s safe and suitable for the offender to be released.

If an offender is released on licence, they’ll be under the supervision of the probation service and will have to follow specific rules.

Offenders given a life sentence stay under licence for the rest of their life. If they break the terms of their licence at any time, they will be called back to prison.

Life sentences must be given to offenders who are found guilty of murder. A judge may also choose to give a life sentence for serious offences, where the law allows.

What is a whole life term?

In some extremely serious cases, a judge may give an offender a ‘whole life term’. This means that there is no minimum term set by the judge and the offender will never be released from prison.

Types of sentences for young people under UK law

Courts have a range of different sentences they can give offenders aged 10-17. These include:

  • A discharge – whether absolute or conditional, these are the same as those for adult offenders
  • A fine – as with adults, the fine should reflect the offence committed and the offender’s ability to pay. For offenders under 16, paying the fine is the responsibility of a parent or guardian and it will be their ability to pay that is taken into account when setting the level of the fine
  • A referral order – this requires the offender to attend a youth offender panel (made up of two members of the local community and an advisor from a youth offending team) and agree a contract containing certain commitments which will last between three months and a year. The aim is for the offender to make up for the harm caused and address their offending behaviour. An order must be imposed for a first time young offender who has pleaded guilty – unless the court decides that another sentence is justified – and may be imposed in other circumstances
  • A youth rehabilitation order – this is a community sentence which can include one or more requirements that the offender must comply with for up to three years. Some examples of the requirements that can be imposed are a curfew, supervision, unpaid work, drug treatment, mental health treatment and education requirements
  • A custodial sentence – young offenders can receive a custodial sentence called a Detention and Training Order (DTO). These orders will only be imposed in the most serious cases. When they are given, they aim to provide training and education and rehabilitate the offender so they don’t re-offend. Sentences can be spent in secure children’s homes, secure training centres and young offenders’ institutions.

If a young person aged between 12 and 17 years old is sentenced in the youth court, a DTO can last between four months and two years.

In the crown court, a DTO can also be given to a young person aged between 10 and 17 and for a longer period than two years if necessary.

Contact us or further advice and assistance on criminal sentencing, or if you require specialist legal representation.

About the author

Nick Titchener oversees the overall management of Lawtons Solicitors. He is a diligent criminal solicitor with many years of experience including violence and assault and sexual offences. Nick succeeds on even the most complicated cases with a meticulous and systematic approach.

Lawtons is a specialist firm of criminal law defence solicitors with branches across London, Essex, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire.

FAQs about Sentencing

Does a life sentence last for life?

Yes, the life sentence lasts for the rest of the offender’s life. They will serve a term of the sentence in prison and then will be released on license. This means that the offender will be subject to various conditions for the rest of their life. If they break these conditions they will be sent back to prison. The most serious crimes will result in the offender serving the rest of their life in prison.

How long is a life sentence served in prison in the UK?

The average life sentence served is around 15 years before being paroled. Those prisoners who are convicted of exceptionally serious crimes serve a considerably longer amount of time in prison.

Why do you get time off a criminal sentence for admitting guilt?

You can get up to a third off your criminal sentence for admitting your guilt. This is because it saves time and cost to all those involved in the criminal justice system including the Crown Prosecution Service, the courts and the police so their resources are saved for the most serious cases. The amount of time off given to the offender is decided by magistrates and judges and depends on when you have given the guilty plea. The earlier you have given the guilty plea, the greater the reduction in criminal sentence.

Why does the UK media say ‘walked free from court, after being sentenced’?

The UK media gets this wrong. They are saying the offender is free because they have not been sent to jail. However, all non-custodial sentences impose restrictions on the offender. Restrictions include punishments such as curfews and many hours of community service. Failure to comply with these restrictions will result in the offender being sent back to court and could then result in a prison sentence.

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