The case of R v Manning  EWCA Crim 592 is by now familiar to those working in the criminal sphere. The coronavirus pandemic endures, and continues to impact prisons. The Lord Chief Justice’s observations at  and , that COVID-19’s effect on prison conditions can be taken into account in deciding whether to suspend sentences, reverberate around the English and Welsh criminal courts.
In Jones, the Court of Appeal reduced sentence on the basis of Manning, despite the sentence being handed down prior to the UK entering lockdown. What then does Jones add to the consideration of sentencing amidst the COVID-19 pandemic?
On 17 March 2020 at Cardiff Crown Court, Mr Jones was sentenced on one count of attempted burglary to 8 months imprisonment, and one count of possession of a Class A drug to no separate penalty.
The circumstances were that on 27 June 2019 at around 5am, Mr Jones broke into a public house in Pontypool. He kicked through a glass window on the ground floor, but soon set off an intruder alarm rousing the landlady and her partner. The landlady spotted on CCTV a man making away on a white bicycle with a holdall, and called the police. Mr Jones was subsequently found in the area with a holdall, white bike and blood on his hands, and arrested. He was later identified as the man on the CCTV.
In sentencing the judge took account of guidelines for non-domestic burglaries, and found it an aggravating factor that the premises whilst non-domestic, were still occupied by the landlady and her partner. Mr Jones was heavily under the influence of drugs, and indeed was found with a quantity of heroin on him. He had a long record of offences of dishonesty, his most recent sentence in 2019 for offences of non-domestic burglary and criminal damage.
Mr Jones was given full credit for his guilty plea, and a starting point of 12 months was reduced to 8 months accordingly.
There were two grounds of appeal. The first, that the sentence was manifestly excessive, was quickly dispatched by the Court. 12 months could not be described as such. It was at the top of Category 2 in the Guideline, but within the range, taking into account totality, mitigation and Mr Jones’ significant record of previous convictions.
The second ground related to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on prison conditions. Counsel for Mr Jones highlighted he was sentenced on 17 March 2020, 6 days before the UK went into lockdown. The sentencing judge at that time was of course unaware of the serious impact this would have on UK prisons, and this was not taken into account in sentencing. The Court of Appeal were informed Mr Jones was spending all but 30 minutes of each day locked into his cell, with social visits forbidden.
Green LJ quoted Manning, and then stated at  – “in the present, exceptional, circumstances it is appropriate to take the conditions under which the applicant is presently held in custody into account. We do not of course criticise the judge for the sentence imposed because the judge was wholly unaware of the change in prison conditions that would arise just days after the sentence was imposed”.
The appeal was thus partially allowed. The Court quashed the 8 month sentence and, put in its place a sentence of 6 months.
Since the Criminal Appeal Act 1968, the Court of Appeal has had the power to have regard to material not existing at the time of sentence. Section 11(3) of the Criminal Appeal Act 1968, states that the Court of Appeal can quash and substitute a sentence in its place if they consider the appellant “should” be sentenced differently. This is opposed to “should have been” under the Criminal Appeal Act 1907 which would have precluded the result in Jones.
Previously, this has manifested itself in exceptional situations. For example, where the mental condition of a defendant has significantly deteriorated since sentence, even when the condition was known at sentence, – AS  EWCA Crim 318;  2 Cr. App. R.(S) 6. Or, where a defendant has made exceptional progress in prison – Plows (1983) 5 Cr. App. R.(S.) 20.
The COVID-19 pandemic represents a novel exceptional situation, and the Court of Appeal exercised its powers accordingly, taking account of a circumstance that had developed since the original sentencing exercise.
The question then becomes, how far will this go? Do defendants need to be sentenced immediately prior to lockdown for a reduction to be considered? Or is there scope for defendants sentenced weeks or months prior to March 23 2020 to entertain hope of a reduction in sentence? Do there need to be special circumstances combined with the pandemic to justify such a reduction? In Jones the reduction the Court of Appeal made meant the halfway point (and therefore possible release date) of Mr Jones’s sentence was 5 days after judgement was handed down.
It remains to be seen to what extent the Court of Appeal will entertain a reduction based on Manning. However, as long as prison conditions remain difficult due to lockdown, this should be brought up in any sentencing exercise including, as in Jones, an appeal against sentence where conviction was prior to 23 March 2020.