Keeping the scales in balance

Cyrus Tata, the research officer at Strathclyde University's Centre for Law, Computers and Technology.looks at a program for Scottish judges to iron out variations in sentencing

PERHAPS the most difficult decision which a judge has to face is that of sentencing. It is an uncertain task which often places judges in the firing line of public criticism as different judges pass quite different sentences for similar cases.

Inconsistency can largely be explained by the lack of accessible information available to judges about what their colleagues have decided in similar cases. High Court of Justiciary judges in Scotland, however, are leading the way in tackling this problem by pioneering a computerised sentencing information system.

A team from Strathclyde University's Law School and department of Computer Science has now produced a prototype system and studied its feasibility.

"A judge considering sentence will be able to look up the database to see the sentences passed for similar cases," said Professor Alan Paterson, head of the Law School.

The initiative for the system came from one of Scotland's most senior judges, the Lord Justice-Clerk Lord Ross, after he saw a similar system in New South Wales, Australia.

With the backing of the Lord Justice-General Lord Hope, Ross believes the introduction of the information system will help to increase public confidence in sentencing without removing judicial discretion.

"At present, easy access to reliable information about previous sentences is limited," Ross said. "The value of the system is that it can provide a judge with easy access to up-to-date information about what his colleagues decided to do when faced with a similar case."

But no matter how informative the system may be, will a busy judge have the time or the inclination to learn how to operate a computer?

Most of the judges have already had an opportunity to try the system for themselves and found it easy to use and quick to operate. The system is designed so they do not need any computer knowledge or any keyboard skills – it is mouse-operated and the user-interface is intuitive.

Typically, a judge who is considering sentence will select the appropriate characteristics relating to the case. The screen then displays the pattern of sentencing previously passed by the High Court. Since High Court judges travel throughout Scotland hearing cases, the system is designed to operate on laptop computers.

Future systems will be updated to contain not only numerical information but also a database which will contain full texts of the Appeal Court judgments. Judges are also interested in incorporating sentencing law databases into the system and the possibility of being able to write a note about a case on which they have passed sentence.

However, the system does not mark the introduction of computerised sentencing. Unlike 'Expert Systems' which have been produced to accompany the introduction of sentencing guidelines in the US, the Scottish system will only assist in better informing judicial discretion.

"The system will be an invaluable guide, but there is no question of the computer dictating what the sentence has to be," said Ross.