Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Rolf Harris ... historic sexual offences

The famous celebrity Rolf Harris - now aged 84 - has been convicted in the Crown Court at Southwark (Mr Justice Sweeney and a jury) of 12 counts of indecent assault committed in the period 1968 to 1986 - see BBC News 30th June 2014 - Rolf Harris: the charges against him.   Mr Harris is to be sentenced on Friday 4th July and The Telegraph has already proclaimed that he could die in jail.   Sweeney J is reported to have said: '“In reality given the conviction on all 12 counts it is inevitable that the type of sentence that is uppermost in the court’s mind is a custodial sentence and he must understand that.”

Sentencing of Mr Harris will raise similar consideration to those in the Stuart Hall case - previous post of 19th June 2013.  It will be recalled that Mr Hall - now aged 84 - was convicted of 14 counts of indecent assault committed in the period 1967 to 1985/6.  Following the Attorney-General's undue leniency application to the Court of Appeal, Mr Hall's sentence was increased to 30 months imprisonment.  Mr Hall later faced 19 further charges but was convicted on two of them - see the sentencing remarks of Turner J dated 23rd May 2014.  For those, he was sentenced to an additional 30 months imprisonment. 

The sentencing
of ANY offender is a difficult exercise and the general factors in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 Part 12  apply together with any guidelines issued by the Sentencing Council and any relevant Court of Appeal decisions.  The general factors in the 2003 Act include considerations of the purposes of sentencing, the seriousness of the offending, the culpability of the offender and any mitigation.  A particularly important Court of Appeal decision in this context is R v H and others [2011] EWCA Crim 2753.  This requires sentence to be passed according to the law as it was at the time of the offence and not as it is at the date of sentence.  The maximum sentences in relation to historic sex offences are set out in Annex C to the Sexual Offences Definitive Guideline. 

An excellent discussion of this guideline is by Felicity Gerry (now QC) on the UK Criminal Law Blog 18th December 2013 -  Sentencing Historic Sexual Offences - The new Guidelines.  The same blog contains a discussion of some general points relating to Historic Sexual Abuse Allegations

On the specific case of Mr Harris, for a detailed analysis see the UK Criminal Law Blog - Rolf Harris guilty of 12 counts of indecent assault.   That post concludes by asking:

How will the Judge approach the case?

The starting point for sentencing historic sexual offences is the new sexual offences guideline

Additionally, as there are multiple counts to sentence for, our guide on totality and concurrent and consecutive sentences may be of interest.

I would only add that it could prove to be important that Sweeney J asked for medical reports on Mr Harris before passing sentence - Guardian 30th June.

Other matters:

As part of the sentencing, Sweeney J will undoubtedly address ancillary orders including the possibility of (a) awarding compensation to victims (though this can be left to civil claims), (b) a Sexual Offences Prevention Order (particularly if the judge considers that there is risk of further offending), and Notification Requirements (Sexual Offences Act 2003 sections 80-92).

Daily Mail 1st July - Rolf Harris and how secrecy betrays justice


  1. If Rolf Harris has any sense or is well advised by his legal team, he will ask for a number of other unspecified offences to be taken into account at the time of sentencing. If he does not do this, he runs the real risk of a further trial along the lines of the second Stuart Hall trial. Additional offences vountarily offered up tend to be penalised at a lower rate than would be the case if a second trial took place.

    1. Whilst there have been suggestions that Mr Harris has committed further similar offences, we should not assume that he has. Sentencing today (4th July) will be informative.

  2. He was bailed.

    I have to wonder whether the judge was leaving him the option of taking his own life rather than starting a long sentence as a noncer at 84?

    1. The judge would not adopt such an improper motive. It is (these days) quite usual for bail to continue up to the time of sentencing.

  3. I found the verdicts on the various counts perverse and a miscarriage of justice and the conduct of the trial open to criticism. Rolf Harris should not have been sent to prison, in my view.
    Let me explain, briefly. If you examine the weak evidence adduced in court, it is difficult to understand how a jury, properly directed, could have found Harris guilty 'beyond reasonable doubt'. There were a lot of doubts, not shared by Mr Justice Sweeny, who had "no doubt" Harris had ruined the life of a young woman who had an admitted consensual affair with Harris lasting over ten years and had subsequently tried to blackmail him. During the trial, Counsel for the Prosecution was permitted to lead the witness (Harris) into an incriminating admission she (Counsel) put into his mouth. Since when was that allowed? On one count, Harris was jailed for touching a girl's bottom, allegedly, through her clothing, some 45 years ago, when actually, there was no proof as to when, or whether, the incident happened. In sentencing Harris,, the judge trotted out the familiar refrain that he had "shown no remorse", but in fact Harris had shown remorse, in writing in 1997, in relation to the main witness and it was used against him at trial. There was absolutely no need to sentence an octogenarian to jail, on top of his loss of everything by mere reason of being charged, much less conviction. He poses no danger to anyone, has not offended for 20 years, if he ever did offend and he is his invalid wife's carer. As such, he should be released forthwith and yet we have seen numerous calls for even harsher sentencing, that Harris should die in jail, that his art should be destroyed and the referral of the sentence to the Attorney General, who has since been sacked by the Prime Minister. It will be interesting to see how the new AG, who lacks the experience of Dominic Grieve, will deal with it. Personally, I feel the whole trial reflects very poorly on the British Criminal Justice system. I feel ashamed this was allowed to happen.

    1. Thank you for your observations. The above post was written prior to sentencing. I fully expected Mr Harris to be sentenced to imprisonment but, like the author of a post on the Criminal Law Blog, I thought the total sentence would be lower. However, the author of that post wrote:

      We would have thought that the appropriate sentence is about 2-3 years (before reduction for his age and good character). However, we got the sentence badly wrong in Max Clifford when we made the same approach, so who knows?

      I would doubt the need to send him to prison, given his age and personal circumstances. We live in more draconian times however, and being a celebrity means his chance of getting a non-custodial is lesser. It would not surprise me if he were to get a sentence in the range of 4-5 years.

      The ultimate sentence shows we live in draconian times in relation to sentencing for historic sexual offences and a view that the law has lost a sense of perspective is not necessarily wrong though the prevailing view in the judiciary is to take a tough line.

      Harris is certainly NOT a risk to anyone these days. In many ways the fact of conviction is disgrace enough for an old man like Harris and several people have expressed a view similar to yours.

      If I were the new Attorney-General, I don't think I would refer the case to the Court of Appeal because I do not see the sentencing as UNDULY lenient. However, one cannot be sure how the new AG will act.