Court of Appeal Addresses Sentences for County Lines Drug Operation Exploiting Children Under Modern Slavery Act

Citation: [2023] EWCA Crim 1540
Judgment on


In the case of R v Josh Ethan Mason & Ors [2023] EWCA Crim 1540, the Court of Appeal addressed the sentences given to individuals involved in a county lines drugs operation that exploited children and young people. The case emphasizes the gravity of offences under the Modern Slavery Act and the impact on sentencing when they are combined with drug trafficking offences.

Key Facts

Josh Ethan Mason, James Mason, and Adam McArdle were convicted of being involved in a county lines drugs operation called the Boris Line, supplying heroin and cocaine and using vulnerable minors as runners. They pled guilty to various charges, including offences under the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The sentences handed down at first instance were 14 years for McArdle, 7 years for James Mason, and 6 years for Josh Mason, with all sentences running concurrently. McArdle and Josh Mason sought leave to appeal their sentences, while the Solicitor-General referred the sentences of Josh Mason and James Mason as unduly lenient.

The legal principles applied in this case primarily concern the interpretation of the Sentencing Council Guidelines, the application of the totality principle, and the assessment of defendant roles within a criminal conspiracy.

Sentencing Council Guidelines

The court referenced the guidelines for drug trafficking regarding the defendant’s roles, finding James Mason in a leading role and Josh Mason in a significant role. The court considered the aggravating factor of using persons under 18 to supply drugs, which is noted within the guidelines for drug offences. The court also referred to the Modern Slavery Act guidelines to determine the starting point for sentencing for the exploitation offences.

Totality Principle

The totality principle, which ensures that a sentence reflects all the offending behavior but remains just and proportionate, was carefully considered. The Judge made an adjustment for the principle of totality by assessing separate sentences for the drugs and exploitation offences but the Court of Appeal determined that the uplift for the Modern Slavery Act offences was insufficient.

Defendant Roles and Aggravating Factors

The court assessed the roles and culpability of the defendants, with consideration of their criminal past and degree of involvement. It was noted that Josh Mason’s initial drug dealing involvement at a young age did not render him a victim under the Modern Slavery Act. The court also considered the seriousness of the offences, emphasizing that exploitation of children for drug trafficking purposes is severely aggravating due to the vulnerability of the victims and the long-term impacts on them.


The judgment cited prior case law including R v Mohammed (Zakaria) [2019] EWCA Crim 1881, Attorney-General’s Reference No.2 of 2013 [2013] Cr App Rep (S) 71, and R v Nixon & Ismail [2021] EWCA Crim 575 to emphasize the seriousness of using minors in drug operations and to draw parallels in sentencing considerations.


The appeals by McArdle and Josh Mason were dismissed, and the Court of Appeal acceded to the Solicitor-General’s application regarding the sentences for the Mason brothers. The court replaced the sentences with 10 years’ imprisonment for James Mason and 8 years’ imprisonment for Josh Mason for the drug offences, to run concurrently with their sentences for the Modern Slavery Act offences, which were not disturbed.


The judgment reinforces the severity with which the courts view the exploitation of children and young people in drug trafficking operations. The case clarifies the application of the totality principle in cases involving concurrent offences under the Modern Slavery Act and drugs legislation, and it signals that sentences must be adjusted sufficiently to reflect the gravity of the exploitation beyond the drug trafficking itself. The linkage of the role and culpability assessments with the defendants’ overall behavior rather than their individual actions within the conspiracy reflects an important stance on the collective responsibility within organized crime.

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