Court of Appeal Scrutinizes Sentence Appeal in Rape Case, Quashes Dangerousness Finding

Citation: [2023] EWCA Crim 1356
Judgment on

Introduction

In the recent judgment of R v HLN [2023] EWCA Crim 1356, the Court of Appeal Criminal Division deliberated upon several significant legal issues surrounding an appeal against sentence in a case involving sexual offenses. The defendant, HLN, appealed the sentence and finding of dangerousness after pleading guilty to two counts of rape against his former partner. The analysis of this case will provide insight into the legal principles applied in determining the appropriate sentence, the recognition of vulnerability in the context of rape, the concept of ‘abuse of trust’ in sentencing guidelines, the assessment of dangerousness, and the application of the totality principle.

Key Facts

HLN was sentenced to an extended sentence of 14 years, comprising an 11-years’ custodial term and an extended licence period of 3 years. The basis of his guilty plea was that while he had believed at the time that the victim was consenting, he later acknowledged that this belief was not reasonable. Discrepancies in the factual background relating to the timing and circumstances of the offenses led to the defense requesting a review of the sentence. The judge acknowledged an error in the dates but determined it did not alter the seriousness of the offending. The appeal contested the harm category identified, the length of the determinate sentence, and the classification of HLN as a dangerous offender.

Sentencing and Vulnerability

The Court of Appeal referred to R v Sepulvida-Gomez [2019] EWCA Crim 2174 and R v BN [2021] EWCA Crim 1250 to assess whether the victim’s condition rendered her ‘particularly vulnerable due to personal circumstances’. It was found that the circumstances of the victim being asleep and having previously suffered from a prolapse contributed to her vulnerability, justifying the application of this aggravating factor in sentencing.

Abuse of Trust

Concerning the notion of ‘abuse of trust’, the court looked to R v Forbes [2016] EWCA Crim 1388 and R v WVF [2023] EWCA Crim 65 for guidance. The court held that the term ‘abuse of trust’ in sentencing guidelines did not apply as colloquially understood and was more appropriate where someone is put in a position of power or caregiving. The errors were noted, but the court determined that there was no practical impact on the sentence.

Assessment of Dangerousness

For dangerousness, under s.308 of the Sentencing Act 2020, consideration of the risk posed by the defendant to the public is mandatory. The Court doubted the initial finding due to the sentence being partly based on a misunderstanding of the defendant’s reaction during the hearing. The defendant’s previous good character, some admissions of wrongdoing, absence of further offending, and extended time in prison were considered mitigating factors, leading the court to reject the finding of significant risk to the public, necessary for classifying a defendant as dangerous.

Totality Principle

The principle of totality was addressed. While the court acknowledged that different judges might allow a more substantial discount in sentence, it concluded that the approach taken was not fundamentally wrong or excessively harsh, though noted as severe.

Outcomes

Upon review, the Court of Appeal found that the error in the identification of the dates of the rapes and the application of the defendant’s reaction did not materially change the culpability involved in the offense. However, it decided to quash the finding of dangerousness and substituted the extended sentence with a determinate sentence of 11 years’ imprisonment.

Conclusion

The appeal in R v HLN demonstrates the careful scrutiny appellate courts apply on appeal against sentences, particularly regarding vulnerable victims, the application of aggravating factors such as the abuse of trust, and the assessment of dangerousness. The outcome of the appeal shows the court’s commitment to ensuring that defendants are sentenced fairly, based on accurate information, and that findings of dangerousness are reserved for cases meeting the strict statutory criteria.

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