An Oxford medical student stabbed her boyfriend with a bread knife. So why is she not going to prison?

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Remember all the fun we had earlier this year with the Cricket Bat Case? You know the one – where the defendant, Mustafa Bashir, assaulted his wife with a cricket bat, forced her to drink bleach and was given a suspended sentence, partially because the judge took account of the defendant having been offered a professional cricketing contract? And everyone got terrifically angry about it, even though they clearly hadn’t taken the time to obtain the facts? And Diane Abbott and Harriet Harman traversed the airwaves and the plains of social media in furrowed unison to whip up the cries for the judge to be “sacked” for what he’d said, even though he hadn’t said it? And, even when, at the “slip rule” hearing where the defendant was sent to prison after it emerged that the cricketing contract was a fiction, the judge took the time to carefully explain his earlier, misreported remarks, no-one listened and wrapped themselves up in a cocoon of impervious self-righteousness? Remember all that? Yeah? What larks.

Well luckily for us, we may be about to go through it all again. Because once more, Mercury scoots in with a message of justice gone wrong, in the form of a case of domestic violence where the defendant stabbed the complainant with a bread knife, only to be assured by the judge that, when the time comes for sentence, she will most likely not be going to prison. The reason? Her “extraordinary” medical talent.

This post comes dangerously close to breaching one of my cardinal rules, vis not commenting on cases until they are concluded and the full facts (or as close to them as we can get) are known. But given that there has already been a steady buzz of interest in the case online, I thought it worth heading off some of the likely queries at the pass, not least as comparisons with the Bashir case are already circulating.

Facts

The published facts are limited. The Guardian offers us this:

“Aspiring heart surgeon Lavinia Woodward, 24, punched and stabbed her boyfriend during an alcohol-and-drug-fuelled row at Christ Church College. She admitted unlawfully wounding the Cambridge University student, who she met on the dating app Tinder. […] Woodward, who lives in Milan, Italy, with her mother, stabbed her then-boyfriend in the leg after punching him in the face. She then hurled a laptop, glass and jam jar at him during the attack on 30 September last year.”

According to Mail Online, the guilty plea was entered before Oxford Crown Court at an earlier hearing. At a hearing yesterday, sentence was deferred to 25 September 2017. In deferring, HHJ Pringle Q.C. noted that this was an “exceptional” course and indicated that come autumn she may avoid an immediate custodial sentence due to the impact such a sentence would have upon her future career:

 “It seems to me that if this was a one-off, a complete one-off, to prevent this extraordinary able young lady from not following her long-held desire to enter the profession she wishes to would be a sentence which would be too severe,” he said.

“What you did will never, I know, leave you, but it was pretty awful, and normally it would attract a custodial sentence, whether it is immediate or suspended,” he said.

It is further reported that Ms Woodward has had articles published in medical journals including the Annals of Thoracic Surgery, Hypertension, and The Journal of Physiology. The Telegraph quotes a source as saying that she finished top of her year in her third year pre-clinical tests at Oxford.

Finally, we are told are that her barrister informed the court that Ms Woodward had a “very troubled life”, struggled with drug addiction and had been abused by a former partner.

So what is going on here?

Deferred sentence

Deferring sentence is nowadays an unusual step to take. It is not to be mistaken for adjourning a sentence hearing, which happens all the time for various reasons – to obtain probation or psychological reports, for example. Rather a deferment is a specific statutory power (section 1 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000, as you ask) which a court can use where it wants to observe the defendant’s conduct post-conviction before arriving at a final sentence. If a court is satisfied that it would be in the interests of justice, “having regard to the nature of the offence and the character and circumstances of the offender”, sentence will be deferred to a fixed later date.  Typically, we tend to see it in cases where a judge wants to see if a defendant can make a sustained effort at rehabilitation – say by holding down a job or undergoing voluntary drug or alcohol treatment. If a defendant agrees to a deferment, the court will impose “requirements” as it considers appropriate – in this case, it has been reported that the judge required that the defendant remain drug free and not re-offend.

When she comes back to court on 25 September, the judge will determine whether the defendant has substantially conformed or attempted to conform with the expectations of the court – i.e. by staying clean and keeping out of trouble – and, if she has, she can legitimately expect that she will not go immediately to prison.

Sentencing Guidelines

It appears from reports that the defendant pleaded guilty to unlawful wounding, contrary to section 20 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. While a serious offence, it is of note that it in fact carries the same maximum sentence – 5 years’ imprisonment – as assault occasioning actual bodily harm, which was the offence in the Bashir case. It is also of note that section 20 covers two different offences – inflicting grievous bodily harm, and unlawful wounding. It is one of the many (unjustified) quirks of the law that these two offences are treated equally even though the injury caused in a wounding can be relatively minor (it merely requires a break of the skin), whereas GBH by definition entails really serious harm. Here, we know nothing about the level of injury.

As with all sentence hearings, a court is required by law to follow relevant Sentencing Guidelines published by the Sentencing Council. In this case, we look to the Assault Definitive Guideline. By plugging the facts of the offence into the grid, we theoretically arrive at a category of offence, which gives a starting point for sentence, and a range which the court can move between depending on the aggravating and mitigating factors at play. The Guideline is here:

Now, we have little idea, absent further facts, what category the judge will put this case into. We know nothing about the level of injury, the ongoing effect on the victim, and the circumstances leading up to the assault. But even if the judge were to conclude that the offence was so serious as to fall within the highest category – Category 1 – (which on the given facts I think is unlikely) this would provide a starting point of 3 years, the relevance of which is that once you take off the 1/3 credit that is awarded for a timely guilty plea (assuming that it was), you arrive at something around the 2 year mark. And the relevance of the magic 2 years is that any sentence of 2 years or under can be suspended.

This is a long-winded way of saying, simply, that on the Guidelines, the judge will not have to struggle to arrive at a sentence capable of being suspended, if, as I suspect, this is what he envisages proposing at the next hearing.

Whether he should suspend it is, of course, another matter. And it is here that we find ourselves back in Bashir territory. The parallels are striking: A defendant with no previous convictions; a serious offence of domestic violence using a weapon; and personal mitigation including a promising career. Ms Woodward’s offence is more serious in the statutory hierarchy of violent offences; however she has what appears to be powerful mitigation relating to her reported issues with substance misuse and history as a victim of domestic violence.

While there is no strict test for suspending a sentence of imprisonment, the Guideline offers the following pointers:

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We do not know enough to say whether any of the left hand column is made out; but it could be argued that at least two of the factors on the right apply. The court must have regard to the statutory five purposes of sentencing – punishment, reduction of crime (including by deterrence), reform and rehabilitation of offenders; protection of the public; and making reparations – and will need to assess the appropriate emphasis in any given case. While stabbing with a bread knife is plainly serious, if the injury is not particularly grave, and if the court is of the view that more can constructively be achieved by avoiding sending a promising young defendant to prison and shattering their future life prospects, instead offering in the first instance a sentence focussing on rehabilitation to address deep-rooted problems laying behind the offending, then it is arguably in service of those five principles that a suspended sentence of imprisonment, with punitive and rehabilitative requirements attached, might be imposed.

And, lest anyone be seduced by the reflexive narrative that such merciful sentences are only afforded to white, middle class defendants, let me assure you: this course (as I said in the Bashir posts) is not unusual. Where a defendant who has never been in trouble is facing a custodial sentence of  2 years or under, and where they have the prospect of employment, education or caring responsibilities, judges will often strive to avoid passing a sentence of immediate imprisonment. That is not to deny that unconscious social or racial bias plays a part in judicial decisions; basic neuroscience teaches us that it does, to some degree at least. But the suggestion that this exceptional course is only ever reserved for the Prom Queens (or whatever our British equivalent is) is tired and lazy. The reason you don’t hear about the suspended sentences handed down for less photogenic defendants – for the 19 year-old lad starting his apprenticeship, or the 48 year-old mobile hairdresser – is mainly because the media tends not to report on them.

Conclusion

It is too early to draw any conclusions. That is really the beginning and end of it. But if we must go a little further, I would observe that, although understandably surprising to the non-lawyer, there is nothing on the reported facts of this case to suggest yet that anything is amiss. We will wait and see what September brings (and hope that, given the pre-emptive press rumblings, the judge takes the step of formally publishing his sentencing remarks in full), and reassess then. But it is entirely plausible that this is a sad and difficult case where a talented young woman bearing pains that few of us can imagine acted out in an uncharacteristically raw and violent fashion, in a manner that demands condemnation, but the punishment for which the court will temper with mercy, avoiding the compounded tragedy of extinguishing a bright life in the squalid pits of our rotting prisons.

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POSTSCRIPT: In the event that the judge imposes a suspended sentence on 25 September, there will be calls, as with the Bashir case, for the Attorney General to apply to refer the sentence to the Court of Appeal as unduly lenient, in the hope that the Court of Appeal will increase the sentence. Offences of unlawful wounding contrary to section 20 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 are not included in the lists of offences that can be the subject of such an application. So if you know of, or are, a politician champing at the bit to call for the sentence to be increased, screenshot this paragraph and have it in your back pocket for September: It can’t be done.-SECRET BARRISTER

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