This story in the Guardian claims that a judge has imposed a suspended sentence on someone convicted of terrorism offences and has also insisted that he read classic literature by Dickens, Austen, Shakespeare and Hardy.

I assumed that, under English law, sentences for criminal convictions were tightly specified and not open to imposing such unusual/flexible punishments. Under what statutes or sentencing guidelines can a non-standard requirement like this be imposed?


The case has been referred to the Attorney General for review (on the grounds of undue lieniency) so we might get more details about this.

  • 3
    I wonder what those authors would think if they knew their seminal works were used as a punishment.
    – kaya3
    Commented Sep 2, 2021 at 12:12
  • 7
    @kaya3 IANAL, but in some countries the goal is not punishment but reintegration. In Spain a judge became famous for this kind of sentences when minors were involved. taipeitimes.com/News/world/archives/2004/07/18/2003179438 Commented Sep 2, 2021 at 15:33
  • A comment piece in the Guardian mentions this case and says "It’s never wise to second guess a sentencing decision without having heard all the testimony and read the confidential psychiatric evaluations, so let’s assume for the sake of argument that [Judge] Spencer has better reasons than may be immediately obvious for treating this as an isolated case of “teenage folly”" Commented Sep 3, 2021 at 5:51

1 Answer 1


Section 277 of the Sentencing Act 2020 provides:

277 Suspended sentence order for person aged 21 or over: availability

(1) This section applies where, in dealing with an offender for an offence, a court passes a sentence of imprisonment.

(2) A suspended sentence order (see section 286) is available in relation to that sentence if the term of the sentence of imprisonment is (a) at least 14 days, but (b) not more than 2 years.

Chapter 5 of Part 10 of the Act contains provisions relating to suspended sentence orders (SSOs). The following are applicable:

286 (2) A suspended sentence order may also specify one or more available community requirements with which the offender must comply during the supervision period.

286 (4) The community requirements are listed in column 1 of the community requirements table (see section 287).

286 (5) Provision about each requirement is made by the provisions of Schedule 9 mentioned in the corresponding entry in column 2 of that table.

The community requirements table in section 287 contains the following community requirements which may be imposed as part of a SSO:

  1. Unpaid work requirement
  2. Rehabilitation activity requirement
  3. Programme requirement
  4. Prohibited activity requirement
  5. Curfew requirement
  6. Exclusion requirement
  7. Residence requirement
  8. Foreign travel prohibition requirement
  9. Mental health treatment requirement
  10. Drug rehabilitation requirement
  11. Alcohol treatment requirement
  12. Alcohol abstinence and monitoring requirement
  13. Attendance centre requirement
  14. Electronic compliance monitoring requirement
  15. Electronic whereabouts monitoring requirement

Each of these are described in detail in Schedule 9. I wasn't able to find the sentencing judgment for this particular case, but my guess would be that the judge imposed either an unpaid work requierment or a rehabilitation activity requirement (the 1st and 2nd on the list). None of the others appear to be applicable.

Part 1 of Schedule 9:

1(1) In this Code “unpaid work requirement”, in relation to a relevant order, means a requirement that the offender must perform unpaid work in accordance with the instructions of the responsible officer as to (a) the work to be performed, and (b) the times, during a period of 12 months, at which the offender is to perform it.

Part 2 of Schedule 9:

4(1) In this Code “rehabilitation activity requirement”, in relation to a relevant order, means a requirement that, during the relevant period, the offender must comply with any instructions given by the responsible officer to do either or both of the following (a) attend appointments; (b) participate in activities.

5(4) The responsible officer, when instructing the offender to participate in activities, may require the offender (a) to participate in specified activities and, while doing so, comply with instructions given by the person in charge of the activities, or (b) to go to a specified place and, while there, comply with any instructions given by the person in charge of the place.

  • 10
    If the sentenced person doesn't want to do the activities, they can always choose imprisonment, correct?
    – ColleenV
    Commented Sep 1, 2021 at 13:50
  • 6
    @ColleenV I don't see any procedure in the Act whereby the offender could choose up-front, no. They would first need to be given the SSO and then fail to comply with it. However, if they made clear during sentencing that they intended to breach the SSO, then it's quite possible (likely even) that the judge would give a custodial sentence instead. But that is at the judge's discretion rather than being a "choice" for the offender.
    – JBentley
    Commented Sep 1, 2021 at 14:01
  • 5
    if they can confirm that a mental health professional agrees with it, community requirement 9 (mental health treatment requirement) may apply.
    – grovkin
    Commented Sep 1, 2021 at 18:30
  • 9
    @Kevin would you have easier time believing it if the book was "how to make friends and influence people?" It probably would be sketchy if this was the sole community requirement empowering the judge to make this order. But as an added one, on top of the two already mentioned in the answer, it's hardly going too far. I would guess the whole goal is not to make someone saner as much as it is to make them less anti-social. And since classics are, by definition, presumed to be part of a shared communal experience, it's in line with this goal.
    – grovkin
    Commented Sep 1, 2021 at 23:08
  • 2
    I would go with this falling under "rehabilitation" rather than "unpaid work". Work usually implies you're actually doing something for someone, or contributing to society in some way, and the work is useful in and of itself (and this is reinforced by the "unpaid" prefix, which somewhat suggests that the work otherwise would've been paid). This wouldn't apply to simply reading a book, which is more about personal growth. Although I'm not sure if there's a legal definition of "work".
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Sep 2, 2021 at 10:16

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