Pre-Sentence Reports: April 2022

By Dr Gwen Robinson
• In order for courts to craft and impose appropriate and effective sentences, sentencers need an adequate amount of information about the offender and his or her personal circumstances. The advocate’s submission on sentencing will supply some of this material. The most important source of information, however, is the pre-sentence report (PSR). The provision of PSRs is the responsibility of the Probation Service for England and Wales and contemporary Probation Service guidance states that the purpose of a PSR is ‘to facilitate the administration of justice, to reduce an offender’s likelihood of re-offending and to protect the public and/or victim(s) from further harm’ (HMPPS 2021, para. 1.5).
• Section 30 of the Sentencing Act 2020 specifies that for offenders aged 18 or over, a PSR should be obtained unless the court considers it unnecessary, thus providing considerable room for discretion. Sentencing Council guidance reinforces this discretion,suggesting that a PSR should be obtained where a court is considering imposing a community sentence or a sentence of imprisonment (including suspended sentence orders), ‘unless the court considers a report to be unnecessary’ (Sentencing Council 2017).
• In recent years there has been a significant shift away from written PSRs towards oral reports. There are several reasons for this trend, the most significant being the drive to enhance the efficiency of criminal justice processes and to speed up the disposal of criminal cases, as articulated in Transforming Summary Justice and Better Case Management programmes. The move toward the speedier delivery of PSRs, and the associated eclipse of the ‘traditional’ written Standard Delivery Reports, has prompted questions and concerns about the quality of contemporary PSRs, particularly in the magistrates’ courts where oral reports now dominate (e.g. du Mont and Redgrave 2017; Napo 2016; HMIP 2017; Centre for Justice Innovation 2018).
• An inspection of Race Equality in Probation (HMIP 2021) found that the quality of PSRs prepared in cases of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic service users was ‘insufficient in too many cases’ and that not enough attention was paid to diversity. Of 51 reports inspected, the quality of only 58% was judged to be sufficient. Inspectors concluded that ‘Poorer quality reports that fail to consider all relevant factors run the risk of service users receiving more punitive sentences’ (HMIP 2021, p. 29). The same report also observed considerable variance between different geographical areas in the proportion of ethnic minority service users who had been sentenced without the benefit of a PSR.
• Taken together, the findings of recent research suggest that the drive towards speed in the provision of PSRs has had advantages, particularly from the point of view of sentencers. However, it may also have resulted in both a reduction in requests for PSRs and (in some cases) a reduction in the quality of information available to guide decisions both at sentencing and at the start of a community sentence.
Read the full report here