Essex lorry deaths: Sentencing 39 counts of manslaughter

Ronan Hughes, Gheorghe Nica, Maurice Robinson and Eamonn Harrison were today sentenced for 39 counts of unlawful act manslaughter. All four offenders were involved with people smuggling operations whereby migrants were loaded into the backs of sealed lorry containers and transported across mainland Europe to the UK. On 22 October 2019, during one such smuggling operation, 39 Vietnamese migrants were loaded into the back of a sealed lorry container. This was a much higher number of people than previous occasions and it was suggested that this increase in numbers was to make up for a previous failed smuggling endeavour. Each victim paid between £10,000-£13,000 for their place in the container.
As the container was driven across Europe to the Belgian port of Zeebrugge by Harrison, the temperature inside the container rose significantly, reaching a maximum of 38.5 degrees. As it did so oxygen levels depleted. Those inside the container began to overheat and struggled to breathe. By the time the container arrived at the docks in Purfleet, Essex all of the victims had died of either overheating, or asphyxia and hyperthermia. The lorry driver collecting the container from Essex was Robinson. Robinson had received a message from Hughes instructing him to check on the victims but ‘not let any escape’, which he agreed to do. Robinson found an opportunity to pull over and surveyed the back of the lorry. On seeing that all 39 individuals were dead Robinson called Hughes who instructed him to destroy his phone and contact the emergency services. After destroying his phone, Robinson called for an ambulance which attended with the police.
All four offenders received custodial sentences for manslaughter. Hughes received a sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment, Nica received a sentence of 27 years’ imprisonment, Robinson received a sentence of 13 years and four months’ imprisonment and Harrison received a sentence of 18 years’ imprisonment. As these sentences are longer than seven years, and for a specified offence, all four offenders will have to serve two-thirds of their sentence in prison before release.
The trial which resulted in these convictions did not deal exclusively with the manslaughter charges. It also dealt with a wider set of offending relevant to a total of four unlawful consignments of migrants smuggled to the UK in October 2019. It was the final of these consignments which resulted in the deaths of the 39 people. Four other offenders were sentenced for associated offences but, crucially, were not convicted of manslaughter. Commenting on the exceptional nature of this offence at sentencing, Mr Justice Sweeney provided: ‘I am conscious that there is nothing that I can either do or say that can either reflect the value of their lives, or reflect the extent of the loss to their families whose moving statements I have considered with care’.
What is unlawful act manslaughter?
Unlawful act manslaughter is a homicide offence that requires a death to result from the commission of an unlawful act which itself presented an objective risk of causing bodily harm to another. The accused need not have actually intended to cause any harm to anyone, nor appreciated the risk of harm presented. Instead, they need only have the relevant intention to commit the unlawful act which resulted in the death. Accordingly, in this case, the offenders’ intention to conduct the smuggling operations, coupled with the objective dangerousness of concealing 39 individuals in a sealed container for a significant number of hours, satisfied the requirements for conviction for this offence.
How is unlawful act manslaughter sentenced?
Sentencing courts in England and Wales are required to follow offence-specific sentencing guidelines issued by the Sentencing Council. All relevant guidelines must be followed unless the court is satisfied that it would be contrary to the interests of justice to do so. The guidelines establish both a starting point and a sentencing range for the court to follow, with these being based on a guided assessment of the harm caused by the offence and the culpability of the offender.
The sentencing guidelines for the offence of unlawful act manslaughter provide a range of 1- 24 years’ custody. The maximum available sentence is life imprisonment, although a discretionary life sentence is considered to require, in addition to the commission of a very serious offence, a finding that the offender poses a future risk to the public. In these unusual circumstances, despite the seriousness of the offence, none of the offenders were found to pose a sufficient future risk to meet the criteria for a life sentence. Mr Justice Sweeney noted that: ‘I agree with the submissions on all sides that none of those facing sentence for manslaughter meet the statutory definition of being dangerous offenders. Nor, in my view, and very serious though they are, do the manslaughter offences, whether alone or in combination, meet the relevant criteria for the imposition of life sentences.’
The breakdown of sentencing starting points and ranges for this offence is illustrated in the below table, with categories A-D indicating offenders assessed to have the highest to lowest culpability respectively. Importantly, this guidance reflects the starting points and ranges relevant to a single count of unlawful act manslaughter. In this case, Mr Justice Sweeney determined that the manslaughter offences fell in Category B, with a starting point of 12 years.
The roles and sentences of the offenders
It was concluded that Hughes and Nica played a leading role in the conspiracy to people smuggle and Harrison and Robinson, both of whom were lorry drivers, played a lesser role in the conspiracy. Harrison was a lorry driver recruited by Hughes and his role was to meet the migrants at the designated locations in Europe, load the migrants onto the trailers, give them instructions about the journey, and transport the lorry to the designated port. Robinson was the lorry driver who was responsible for picking up the container after it had arrived in the UK before transporting it to a designated location.
The roles of each offender was varied and this was reflected in the sentences handed down. There were common aggravating features to all of the offenders identified by Mr Justice Sweeney: that the underlying conspiracy was committed for financial gain; that death occurred in the context of an offence that was planned or premeditated; that significant mental or physical suffering was caused to the deceased; that, after the event, all four defendants disposed of their unregistered phones.
The longer sentences for Hughes and Nica (of 20 years and 27 years respectively) were reflective of their leading roles in the operation. In the case of Hughes, an additional aggravating factor was that he had a relevant previous conviction (section 65 of the Sentencing Act 2020 provides that previous convictions should be treated as an aggravating factor if the court considers they are relevant, having had regard to the amount of time that has elapsed since that previous conviction). Treated as an aggravating factor for Nica was that he left the country after the offence. However, key to understanding the differing sentences is the reduction in sentence that is available to offenders who plead guilty. A guilty plea entered at the first reasonable opportunity attract a reduction of one-third to the sentence. Both Hughes and Robinson received this full discount and this explains why they received significantly lower sentences than Nica and Harrison respectively.
Why were the offenders not sentenced cumulatively for 39 separate counts of manslaughter?
In sentencing the defendants, Mr Justice Sweeney determined that each offence of manslaughter in this case carried a starting point of 12 years’ imprisonment. This raises the question as to why the starting point for 39 counts is not treated as being 468 years (39 x 12 years).
Intuitively one might assume that when sentencing an offender for multiple counts, a court will devise a sentence proportionate to each count in isolation (i.e. in this case, each victim) and then add these up to reach a total sentence. This is known as a ‘cumulative’ approach to sentencing. However, as in most countries, sentencing in England and Wales does not simply take a ‘cumulative’ approach when dealing with multiple counts. This is because a cumulative approach can produce disproportionate sentences whereby individuals convicted of multiple minor offences (for example, 100 offences of shoplifting) are punished more severely than those with a single conviction for a much more serious crime (for example, rape). Instead, the court considers the ‘bigger picture’ of the relevant criminal offending and attempts to impose a sentence which reflects the ‘overall proportionality’.
The way that the overall proportionality approach to sentencing is achieved in practice is through the operation of the principle of ‘totality’. The Sentencing Council has produced a guideline on the totality principle ( and this guideline notes: ‘All courts, when sentencing for more than a single offence, should pass a total sentence which reflects all the offending behaviour before it and is just and proportionate’.
Establishing what sentence might be considered to be proportionate in accordance with the totality principle in this case was made difficult by two interrelated and compounding factors: the high seriousness of the type of crime that was being sentenced (manslaughter), and the number of counts. Imposing a sentence of even a couple of years for each individual victim would result in all offenders spending the rest of their lives in prison. Accordingly, bound by the principle of totality, the sentences imposed by Mr Justice Sweeney reflect a ‘bigger picture’ assessment of each offenders’ role, not a tallied-up total of sentences for each count.
Also relevant to the issues engaged in respect of sentencing for multiple counts is the decision of the court to impose custodial sentences which run on a concurrent (at the same time) or consecutive (one after the other) basis. This decision is a matter of discretion for the court and should be exercised in a manner that is considered to be most consistent with adherence to the principle of ‘totality’. The Sentencing Council’s totality guideline provides some guidance on circumstances where concurrent sentences will ordinarily be considered to be more appropriate. These include: a) where the offences arise out of the same incident or facts; or b) where the series of offences are of the same or similar kind. Similarly, consecutive sentences will ordinarily be considered appropriate where: a) the offences arise out of unrelated facts or incidents; b) the offences that are of the same or similar kind but where the overall criminality will not sufficiently be reflected by concurrent sentences; or c) one or more offence(s) qualifies for a statutory minimum sentence and concurrent sentences would improperly undermine that minimum.
In the current case, as all 39 counts of manslaughter arose from the same incident it is consistent with the guidance that the sentences on each count are served concurrently. Whilst this is the established approach in England and Wales, it is inevitable that in the quest to find the ‘right’ overall sentence for the offenders in such a tragic case as this the life of each individual victim will be sorely under-valued. Simply put, no sentence of imprisonment, however long, can equate to the loss of 39 lives, as recognised by Mr Justice Sweeney himself.