Skip to content

Sentencing and appeals

The law presumes an accused person is innocent until proved guilty beyond reasonable doubt by the prosecution. If the defendant pleads guilty, the judge will determine the appropriate sentence.


Every offence has a maximum sentence, which is set by statute (usually by an Act of Parliament or an Order in Council).

The court sentences the offender after considering all the circumstances of the case. This can include pre-sentence reports and other specialist reports as well as a 'mitigating plea' by the defence. A range of sentences is available, and the sentence will depend on the type of court and the seriousness of the offence. Sentences include:

  • discharge - which can be 'absolute' and not carry any conditions, or 'conditional' (on not committing another offence)
  • monetary - for example, fines, compensation orders and confiscation orders
  • custody - a prison sentence
  • community sentence – including probation orders, community service orders, supervision orders and attendance centre orders

Public Protection Sentences

Two new prison sentences were introduced to Northern Ireland for offences of a sexual and/or violent nature committed after 15 May 2008. These sentences are only used when a judge decides that there is significant risk of the defendant committing further offences which would cause serious harm to the public.

Serious harm means death or serious personal injury, whether physical or psychological. Assessment of risk is based on reports specifically prepared for that purpose by specialists including probation officers, psychiatrists or psychologists.

If an offender has been assessed as dangerous and has been convicted of a specified or serious sexual or violent offence he receives either a discretionary life sentence, an indeterminate custodial sentence (an ICS), or an extended custodial sentence (an ECS).

Custodial sentences

Imprisonment (or, for children, detention) is the most severe penalty that is available to the courts - it is generally only available for the more serious offences. Having considered all the circumstances of the case, the court will decide on the appropriate length of the sentence. Any time an offender has spent in custody before sentencing will usually count as time towards their sentence.

Additionally the court may decide to suspend a sentence. This means that the offender usually will not serve the sentence unless they commit further offences.

Indeterminate Custodial Sentence (ICS)

The Indeterminate Custodial Sentence (ICS) can be used for the most serious sexual and violent offences, those which carry a penalty of 10 years or more, and can mean that the prisoner can, potentially, be imprisoned for life.

The defendant would only receive an ICS if the court considers that an Extended Custodial Sentence (ECS) would not be adequate.

Extended Custodial Sentence (ECS)

The Extended Custodial Sentence (ECS) will be used in respect of specified sexual or violent offences for which the maximum penalty is no more than 10 years.  The sentence will be a determinate sentence of at least one year and prisoners will become eligible for consideration for release by the Parole Commissioners at the half way point of this custodial term.

In addition to custody, courts will set extended supervision periods of up to five years for violent offenders and eight years for sexual offenders.

Electronic Tagging

The Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 provided new powers for the increased use of curfews, supported by the use of electronic monitoring.  From 1 April 2009, electronic monitoring became available for use as:

  • a condition of bail granted by a court
  • a condition of a licence on release from prison
  • a requirement of a probation or combination order
  • a requirement of a Youth Conference Order
  • a non-custodial element of a custody probation or juvenile justice order

This system is used to monitor if the person is at their place of curfew during the hours of their curfew. It is not designed to continually monitor the person's whereabouts.

The system is operated by a private supplier, G4S, working to government guidelines.

The person is fitted with a tag attached around the ankle. A monitoring unit is installed at the curfew address and is adjusted to receive a signal from the tag.

Tags are waterproof and shockproof and do not interfere with a person's normal activities - you can go swimming, have a bath and play sport. The tag looks like a sports watch and can be worn underneath socks or trousers. Tags can only be removed if the strap is deliberately broken and the control centre will detect immediately if a strap has been cut or damaged.

Regular checks are carried out at the control centre for a signal from the unit and the tag – if there are no signals and the equipment is working properly, a report is submitted.

If the person on tag goes outside their place of curfew during their curfew period, the unit does not receive a signal from the tag and an alert is sent to the control centre. The control centre telephones the house to check if the person is there. If the person wearing the tag is present and denies the breach, the equipment is checked for faults and repaired if necessary so that monitoring continues. If the person on tag confirms the breach or if they are not present when telephoned, the control centre contacts the appropriate authority.

If the person is on bail, the Police will be informed that a breach of bail has taken place and the Police may then arrest the person and report them to the court.

The Probation Board and Youth Justice Agency will take responsibility for cases under their supervision. What happens next will be decided on a case by case basis - this may be immediate arrest, a summons to court, a warning letter, a meeting with the person on tag or recall to prison depending on the type of curfew, the seriousness of the circumstances and the risk to the public.

Fine default initiatives

The opportunity exists for defendants to give their financial details to a court. This is done using a means enquiry form. This will then help the courts decide the level of fine to impose, and also in determining any application a defendant may make, for extra time to pay, or to pay by instalments, at the point of sentence.

If a defendant does not provide his or her financial details, a court may make whatever decision it thinks fit. It is, therefore, in the defendant’s best interests to complete and return the means enquiry form to the court.

A copy of the form is available below and will also be available at all court venues. It will also accompany the summons/charge documents issued to defendant by the police or Public Prosecution Service.

Anyone requiring help completing the form should contact a solicitor or an advice centre. In this regard Citizen’s Advice contact details are included on the form.

Options to pay fines and further help available

As well as posting payment by cheque or postal order to the Customer Services Centre, fines may be paid using a credit or debit card by telephoning the Customer Services Centre on 028 7126 1329, or by using the NI Courts and Tribunals Service online facility, where fines can be paid seven days a week between the hours of 6.00 am and midnight.

Details of payment methods are set out on the Fine Notice which is sent to anyone who has been fined in court.

After a fine has been imposed, it may be possible to arrange for more time to pay, or to pay a fine by instalments.

Anyone experiencing difficulties meeting his or her payments should contact the court office at the court where the fine was imposed to discuss these options.

Community sentences

Probation orders require the offender to be under the supervision of a probation officer and may also impose certain other conditions set by the court.

Community service orders require the offender to do a certain amount of unpaid work for the community. If the offender is employed, they are expected to do the work in their own time.

Supervision orders are similar to probation orders, but are only available for children (young people aged between 10 and 18). These orders may impose certain requirements on the offender, as considered necessary by the court.

Attendance Centre Orders are only available for children and require the offender to go to a centre for a certain number of hours. The centres help offenders to explore why they offend and to stop offending. They also offer help to develop skills and confidence, and to encourage assertive, rather than aggressive, behaviour.


Any person convicted by a magistrates' court (or a youth court) can appeal to the county court against their conviction, and/or the sentence imposed, or, on a point of law, to the Court of Appeal.

It is only possible to appeal the decision of the county court on a point of law. These appeals go to the Court of Appeal.

Appeals from the Crown Court are made to the Court of Appeal.

A further appeal can be made to The Supreme Court, if permission is given, but only if the appeal is on a point of law.

The Director of Public Prosecutions can refer cases from the Crown Court to the Court of Appeal for that Court to review the sentence if he or she considers the sentence imposed was unduly lenient.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) - which is independent of both government and the courts - reviews alleged miscarriages of justice that have been through the appeal process. It can refer a case back to the Court of Appeal if there is a possibility that either a conviction or a sentence would not be upheld. Referral of a case to the CCRC depends on some new argument or evidence which was not raised at the trial or appeal or some other exceptional circumstances.

More useful links