The court of appeal said this week that it had decided not to lengthen the sentence imposed on 20-year-old Jordan Sheard for the killing of Steven Simpson.
Sheard had pleaded guilty to manslaughter, but was sentenced to just three years and six months in prison by Judge Roger Keen in April.
Simpson had been celebrating his 18th birthday in his flat in Cudworth, near Barnsley, in June 2012 when he was doused in tanning oil by a guest and then set alight by Sheard, who had crashed the party. He died later in hospital from his injuries.
The court of appeal said in its ruling that Simpson had been exposed to prolonged homophobic abuse from Sheard and others during the party, although Sheard claimed he had only been involved in “good-natured horseplay”.
Simpson had learning difficulties, Asperger’s syndrome, epilepsy and a speech impairment, and was described as “easily influenced”, but Sheard claimed that he was not aware of this “vulnerability”.
The appeal court concluded that it would be unfair to Sheard to reach conclusions about disputed facts that had not been properly tested at crown court, and so the three judges declined to increase the sentence.
A spokeswoman for the Conservative attorney general, Dominic Grieve, who had asked the court of appeal to lengthen the prison sentence, said: “The attorney general acknowledges the strength of feeling that this case attracted.
“He referred the sentence to the court of appeal as potentially unduly lenient because he felt it appeared significantly too low in view of the circumstances of the offending and the tragic consequences.”
It is just the latest in a long string of criminal court cases in which there has been confusion over the way the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and judges have dealt with an apparent disability hate crime.
In April, CPS insisted that its barrister had treated Simpson’s killing as a disability hate crime and had therefore asked the judge to increase the sentence, under section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003.
But the attorney general’s office today claimed that CPS had not requested a sentence uplift under section 146.
The attorney general’s spokeswoman said the prosecution had argued that the offender “bullied the victim, taking advantage of the victim’s vulnerability in order to do so”, but had not bullied Simpson due to disability-related hostility.
A CPS spokesman said: “On the basis of the evidence that the CPS saw when considering this case for prosecution, we gave clear instructions to prosecution counsel that this case should be treated in court as a hate crime, based on the alleged hostility the defendant showed towards the victim’s disability and sexual orientation.
“Counsel were instructed to apply for a sentence uplift under section 146 on the grounds of hostility to both disability and sexual orientation.
“We acknowledge that circumstances often arise in court that require counsel to make judgement calls during live proceedings. We will be looking at this matter further.”
The Law Commission is currently consulting on proposed changes to legislation that could make it easier for prosecutors to bring disability hate crime charges to court. The changes could also make it easier to secure stricter sentences.
Stephen Brookes, a coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network, said there would be “widespread and deep disappointment” at the appeal court’s decision, particularly among those who are “working to improve reporting confidence and appropriate sentencing of disability hate crime”.
He said the ruling makes the Law Commission’s review of section 146 “a critical matter”, because of the final sentence Sheard received and also the way the evidence and the hostile targeting of Simpson were presented in court.
He said: “At present, existing criminal offences do not provide adequate protection against the type of incident which was at the heart of the Sheard case, and all too often court responses verge on a total failure to recognise and protect people targeted because of disability-related issues.”
11 July 2013