In case you’ve missed the flurry of press attention about the sentencing of a 24 year old medical student Lavinia Woodward, in December 2016 Ms Woodward stabbed her boyfriend with a bread knife whilst drunk, and was charged with an offence which carries a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment. She was sentenced this week to 10 months imprisonment, suspended for 18 months.

This case has attracted significant media attention based around the suggestion that Ms Woodward received a suspended sentence rather than an immediate custodial sentence because she was: a) a medical student at Oxford b) white and pretty c) a ‘toff’

Opinion on the case is divided. Some say that none of the above factors were mentioned by the judge in the sentencing remarks and she received a proper sentence in light of the mitigation raised which included a previous abusive relationship, addiction to alcohol and drugs, mental health problems and significant remorse coupled with action taken to address her addictions and health problems. On the other side of the debate the argument is that her privilege, gender and colour were central to the sentencing decision and she has been let off lightly and should be in prison.

I suggest this case raises an alternative discussion to the issues currently being debated in social media and the press, and that is about the systemic inequalities which exist in accessing justice in the UK today.

Ms Woodward’s case had four particular factors which set it apart from the norm and allowed the Judge to, in my opinion, rightly reach the decision which he did.

  1. A Q.C acted as her legal representative (Queen’s Counsel – the most senior type of barrister. Privately paid for)

  2. The Judge requested a Pre-Sentence Report before deciding on her sentence.

  3. The Judge deferred sentencing from May 2017 in order to allow her time to address her issues of addiction

  4. The Judge considered not only a Pre Sentence Report but also reports from three medical experts and several character references.

Dealing with each factor in turn, I have little doubt that if in every case the defendant had a QC and not a duty solicitor, who is dealing with 10 cases at court that day, and has spent maybe 20 minutes with the defendant, they would be more likely to receive sentences which are as appropriate as this one.

Pre-sentence reports are not standard in every case, and the Probation service are under pressure due to their targets, to deliver as many reports as possible on the day and orally. They may have 30 minutes to spend with a person who has just been told that they may face a prison sentence. 30 minutes to find out about someone’s background and ascertain what they might be able to suggest as an alternative to custody. This week I spent a day with Probation staff in London and they are frustrated at their inability to deliver the kind of report that with a 5 month adjournment Lavinia Woodward no doubt had. And the reason she had it in the first place was because her QC will have argued for it. I have spent the past five years researching the sentencing of mothers and many women with dependent children who have committed their first offence (and this may be a non-violent offence – 84% of women in prison have committed non violent crimes) are sent to prison without a pre-sentence report. In the case of Michaela Booth, featured in the  press this week to provide contrast to Woodward’s story, Booth was sentenced to imprisonment for a first offence, which took place when she was 19 years old, in full time employment, single parent of a 4 year old girl, and very drunk. Her lawyer’s request for a Pre Sentence Report was denied by the judge.

Deferred sentences are a good sentencing option because they allow judges to ascertain whether defendants are serious about addressing their offending behavior, but they are seldom used. In research I conducted amongst Crown Court judiciary regarding their sentencing practices only two judges of twenty had ever used a deferred sentence, and they said that it was frowned upon as they too were under pressure to deal with cases ‘on the day’, so as not to slow down court lists. Again, given judicial reluctance to use deferred sentencing, few legal representatives will be in a position of sufficient authority and confidence to argue successfully for this court of action. See above, the QC point.

And finally Ms Woodward had not just one but three reports from medical experts. These cost a great deal of money. They are not requested by a court under normal circumstances. 26% of women in prison in 2016 received treatment for mental health issues in the year prior to their sentence, and 25% of women in prison have symptoms of psychosis. The courts do not routinely request medical reports in 25% of sentencing cases.

Ms Woodward’s privilege bought her access to a senior barrister, rehabilitation programmes and medical experts.

The combination of these resources provided the Judge with the opportunity to give her an appropriate and well thought out sentence which will hopefully allow her the chance to rehabilitate rather than reoffend.

The debate around this case should not be about the sentence given. It is about the much greater issue of access to justice regardless of gender, class, or race. What is needed in response to this case is a concerted call for more Legal Aid funding for criminal defendants, a presumption in favour of Pre Sentence Reports for those facing custody who have mental health or addiction problems, or caring responsiblities, and a presumption against immediate imprisonment in cases where there is either a non custodial alternative or the period of custody is for less than two years and could therefore be suspended.

 

Of those imprisoned in 2016 71% had committed non-violent crimes. Within the female population that number rose to 84%.

Of those imprisoned in 2016 47% served six months or less. Within the female population that number rose to 70%.

(Ministry of Justice Offender Management Statistics, 2016)

Sentencing remarks in the case of R v Woodward are available here.

An analysis of the sentencing guidelines and process is available here.