Home Detention Curfew – case significance

This case concerned the way in which the Secretary of State for Justice misinterpreted legislation relating to the early release of low risk prisoners under the ‘Home Detention Curfew’ scheme (otherwise known as ‘tagging’), which led to remarkable anomalies and injustices whereby, at any one time, hundreds of prisoners were deprived of eligibility for the scheme. This meant that they served up to 135 days longer than other prisoners with similar sentences.

The particular problem arose where there were consecutive sentences made up of terms of 12 months or more, and less than 12 months, and concerned the interpretation of transitional provisions in place following the coming into force of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (CJA 03) and dealing with the interrelationship of provisions in the CJA 03 and the Criminal Justice Act 1991 (CJA 91).

Ms Noone was sentenced to consecutive terms of imprisonment totalling 27 months for various offences of theft and contempt of court. Because of the order in which the sentences were passed and the interpretation of the relevant provisions by the Secretary of State, she was eligible for about 100 days release on Home Detention Curfew less than a prisoner who had been sentenced to a single 27 month sentence on the same day.

The Secretary of State interpreted the legislation to mean that eligibility for Home Detention Curfew and the length of licences often depended entirely on the order in which sentences were imposed, resulting in widespread disadvantage for prisoners and reduced rehabilitation through shortened licence periods. At first instance, in the High Court, Mr Justice Mitting had ruled that the Secretary of State’s policy was unlawful as it disadvantaged prisoners depending on the order in which their sentences were imposed. The Court of Appeal disagreed, holding that the Secretary of State’s interpretation of the legislation was correct.

The Supreme Court unanimously allowed the prisoner’s appeal and reversed the Court of Appeal decision in strongly-worded judgments, by setting out an interpretation of the law which provides uniformity of approach and consistent results without anomaly in either eligibility for Home Detention Curfew or licence period, and without relying on the order in which sentences had been imposed. All five judges in the Supreme Court agreed that the interpretative reasoning offered by the Appellant represented the only plausible interpretation of the law.

It is worth noting how strongly the Supreme Court Justices criticised the complexity of criminal justice legislation in their judgments, pointing out how justice in this case ended up buried amongst the ‘legislative morass’, resulting in public resources being wasted on attempting to find a solution to very complex legal issues, which might not have been so complex had they been properly drafted in the first place.