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Wildlife crimes on trial

One particular problem that is raised regularly by those working to stop the illegal trade in endangered species is sentencing. It is widely held that sentences for such offences in many countries, including the UK, are too lenient. The principles of deterrence require that sentences are certain, swiftly dispensed and severe (enough). Prosecutions for such offences remain rare, so deterrence is already difficult to achieve.

Sentencing illegal wildlife trade

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In 2014, Melanie Flynn, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Huddersfield, was commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund UK (WWF-UK) to undertake a research project looking at the state of sentencing for illegal wildlife trade (IWT) in England and Wales, with a particular focus on sentencing guidelines. The research, which was completed over 2014 and early 2015, involved a review of the literature, an analysis of data on wildlife trade prosecutions (provided by TRAFFIC), interviews with Crown Prosecution Service prosecutors (listed as wildlife and heritage crime specialists) and an ‘experts workshop’.

The research concluded that sentencing in England and Wales for IWT is inconsistent, lenient and dispensed within a system involving prosecutors and sentencers that have little (if any) experience of such crimes. As few cases appear before the courts, there is no opportunity to build up a body of knowledge and there is little precedent (previous decisions of higher courts) on which to draw. Unlike many other offences, IWT is not subject to sentencing guidelines. Given the findings of the research, Melanie strongly believes that such guidelines are necessary if sentencing IWT offences is to be improved, and have any deterrent effect.

Introducing sentencing guidelines

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The research findings and subsequent report supported the view that WWF-UK should continue to advocate for the introduction of sentencing guidelines, and arguments were presented in support of this. In addition, drawing on existing guidelines and the experts’ workshop, Melanie highlighted the types of issues that should be considered in any future guidelines, including those relating to a more appropriate assessment of the harm caused by such offences.

Representatives of WWF-UK have met with the Sentencing Council, however at this time the Council still holds the view that IWT offences should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis and confirmed they have no current plans to introduce guidelines.

Photo credit: WWF-Malaysia
Photo credit: WWF-Malaysia

However, as a result of this research, in May 2017 Melanie was invited by WWF-Malaysia to Kota Kinabalu (Malaysian Borneo) to attend a meeting of the Judiciary of Sabah and Sarawak as an expert advisor. Melanie was the lead presenter and also helped to facilitate a workshop and feedback session. The meeting concluded with a commitment from the judiciary that they would establish a committee to introduce sentencing guidelines for their environmental courts, in a form compatible with their legal system.

Melanie remains in contact with WWF-UK and WWF-Malaysia and has agreed to provide further expert input as the guidelines are developed. Next year she intends to produce a revised version of the research for academic publication, again highlighting the importance of appropriate sentencing and the benefits of sentencing guidelines.

The research report can be found here: Sentencing Wildlife Trade Offences in England and Wales: Consistency, Appropriateness and the Role of Sentencing Guidelines

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