UPDATE: An Oxford medical student stabbed her boyfriend with a bread knife. So why did she not go to prison?

Lavinia Woodward, the 24-year old Oxford student who pleaded guilty to stabbing her boyfriend with a bread knife, was sentenced yesterday at Oxford Crown Court for unlawful wounding. The case caused a splash back in May when, having entered her plea, the defendant was told by the judge that she was unlikely to receive an immediate custodial sentence, in part due to her promising medical career. Thus was born the tale of the rich, blonde, white Oxford student who was “too clever” to be sent to prison. “Too clever” appears in all headlines in quotation marks, notwithstanding that no-one in court, not least the judge, ever used these words; rather this is one of the those splendid auto-generated media myths, where one tabloid shorthand was adopted by all until everyone came to accept that these words must have been said.

What actually happened, as far as we can tell from the limited press reports, I dealt with at the time here. In short, the judge was impressed by various features of personal mitigation and deferred sentence, in essence giving the defendant an opportunity to show why she shouldn’t go immediately to prison. HHJ Pringle QC explained yesterday his reasons for deferring:

“[F]irstly, to allow you to continue with your counselling; secondly, for you to demonstrate over a lengthier period of time that you had truly rid yourself of your alcohol and class A drug addiction.”

Four months passed, and Ms Woodward returned to court yesterday to be sentenced to 10 months’ imprisonment suspended for 18 months. After a little delay, the full sentencing remarks were published this morning here. They are mandatory reading for anyone expressing a view about the case, but to assist, let’s look briefly at how the sentencing exercise was carried out.

The facts, as summarised by the judge, were as follows:

“Having met a few months before, in October 2016 you [the Defendant] began a relationship with a student from Cambridge University. Sadly, you were still suffering from the effects of a very damaging previous relationship with another who had introduced you to class a drugs. You clearly had both drug and alcohol addictions. On 30 December 2016, your partner paid you a visit in your accommodation in Christchurch College in Oxford. It rapidly became clear to him that you had been drinking. He tried to discourage you from continuing your drinking without success. As the evening progressed, you became increasingly volatile. At one stage your partner contacted your mother over Skype in order to seek her assistance over what to do about you. When you discovered this, you became extremely angry, starting to throw objects around. It is clear from the transcript of the 999 call that your partner summoned the help of the police before you picked up a bread knife which was in the room and struck a blow with it to his lower leg. In the course of the incident two of his fingers also received cuts. Your partner managed to partly restrain you, albeit you then started to turn the knife on yourself and he had to further disarm you to prevent further self-harm. When the emergency services arrived it was abundantly clear that you were intoxicated, deeply distraught and mentally disturbed. You were taken to a police station in a very distressed state.”

Fortunately, the wounds that your partner received were relatively minor. The two 1 cm cuts to the fingers were treated at the scene with steri-strips and the cut to the leg was closed with three stitches.

The offence was unlawful wounding, contrary to section 20 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which carries a maximum sentence of 5 years. When sentencing, courts are required to follow the Sentencing Guidelines for assault, produced by the Sentencing Council (unless it would be contrary to the interests of justice to do so). So let’s turn to the pages dealing with unlawful wounding and feed these facts into the matrix:

First, the court works out what Category the case falls into, by looking at what specified features of harm and culpability are present. The judge formed the view that this was a Category 2 offence. There was lower harm due to the relatively minor nature of the injuries in the context of this type of offence – note that no-one is saying that wounds caused by a knife are not serious; but it’s all relative. An offence of unlawful wounding covers a wide range of injuries, from small breaks of the skin right up to life-threatening, body-scarring lacerations. A 3cm cut to the leg, closed by three stitches, and minor cuts to fingers treated with steri-strips, while undoubtedly horrible for the victim, are minor in the context of wounding offences. Looking at culpability, there was higher culpability by virtue of use of a knife.

Category 2 provides a starting point of 18 months’ imprisonment, with a range of 12 months’ imprisonment up to 3 years. In order to work out where a defendant falls in this range, the court looks at and applies appropriate weight to other features of aggravation and mitigation, listed here:

What do we know about the mitigation and aggravation in this case?

As far as aggravating features are concerned, the judge said:

[T]here is one non-statutory aggravating feature, namely that at the time of the offence you were heavily under the influence of alcohol. Whilst that in part was as a result of a previous and highly damaging relationship, you were old enough and intelligent enough to realise that over-indulgence would severely affect your behaviour.

But it is regarding the mitigating features that the judge had the most to say:

When I turn to look, however, for mitigating features the picture is very different. There are many mitigating features in your case. Principally, at the age of 24 you have no previous convictions of any nature whatsoever. Secondly, I find that you were genuinely remorseful following this event and, indeed, although it was against your bail conditions you contacted your partner to fully confess your guilt and your deep sorrow for what happened. Thirdly, whilst you are clearly a highly intelligent individual, you had an immaturity about you which was not commensurate for someone of your age. Fourthly, as the reports from the experts make clear, you suffer from an emotionally unstable personality disorder, a severe eating disorder and alcohol drug dependence. Finally, and most significantly, you have demonstrated over the last nine months that you are determined to rid yourself of your alcohol/drug addiction and have undergone extensive treatment including counselling to address the many issues that you face. In particular, you have demonstrated to me since I adjourned this matter in May a strong and unwavering determination so to do despite the enormous pressure under which you were put and which has been referred to by your learned counsel.

A further matter advanced in mitigation by the defendant’s counsel (as reported by the  BBC) was that she had suffered domestic violence in a previous relationship, which contributed to her substance misuse.

Taking these strands of mitigation together, it would appear that the judge considered that the starting point should be adjusted downwards from 18 months to 15 months. I say that because it seems that the defendant pleaded guilty at an early stage of proceedings, which would attract “credit” or a discount on her sentence of up to one third. Judges like starting point sentences that are easily divisible by three, so it stands to reason that, although he does not explicitly state as such in the published remarks, he took 15 months and reduced a third to arrive at his final sentence of 10 months’ imprisonment.

As for the decision to suspend the sentence, we dealt with this last time, but I’ll repeat here:

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

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.

The features of mitigation identified – the mental health difficulties, the efforts to address drug and alcohol abuse, the good character, the genuine remorse – would all further support the decision to afford a defendant a chance on a suspended sentence.

Indeed, this further colour, in particular the mental health dimension, shifts the perspective significantly. It’s not just a rich white girl getting a let-off; it’s also a victim of domestic violence with severe mental health and substance misuse problems being given a chance to rebuild her life. You may not care for that latter interpretation, but it’s no less valid than the former preferred by today’s front page “Toff Justice” tabloid headlines, implicitly recycling the nasty myth that money confers mental health immunity.

So that’s the post-script. In summary, there doesn’t appear to be anything unusual in this sentence. You may disagree with its merits; you may think that all violent knife offences should result in immediate prison regardless of circumstances or personal mitigation. You may think there should be more women with mental health problems clogging up our prisons rather than receiving treatment in the outside world and trying to forge careers for themselves. But from a legal point of view, there’s little out of the ordinary. Not based on what we see in the courts in practice, with defendants of all races and social backgrounds. And I’ll close by repeating the conclusion from the earlier post:

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 psychology 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.

As a final observation, the Telegraph reports that Ms Woodward’s QC invited the court to consider imposing a conditional discharge – the lowest form of sanction that a court can impose. The judge refused, clearly of the view that a sentence of imprisonment was required. Had the judge acceded to that invitation, the complaints that the sentence was inexplicably lenient would carry more force. As it is, for the reasons above, there appears nothing unusual, and indeed much humane, about the approach taken in this case.

Note: This post has been updated following the publication of HHJ Pringle QC’s sentencing remarks this morning.

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36 thoughts on “UPDATE: An Oxford medical student stabbed her boyfriend with a bread knife. So why did she not go to prison?

  1. Pingback: UPDATE: An Oxford medical student stabbed her boyfriend with a bread knife. So why did she not go to prison? – seftonblog

  2. “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”

    Pretty much consistent with the press coverage.

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  3. Hi, thanks for this explanation. It looks from the guidelines like the maximum sentence for unlawful wounding is four years, rather than five. Am I reading that wrong?

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  4. While acknowledging that I am not in possession of the complete facts, and also noting that she did receive a custodial sentence, albeit suspended, I remain of the (layman’s) view that the sentence is overly-lenient. If this is not an unusual course for our criminal justice system, then a further observation I would make is that our criminal justice system is also overly-pliant (or in tabloid language: too soft).

    Sometimes, tabloid criticism contains a kernel of truth, grounded in phronesis. Having no criminal record, having drug and alcohol problems, and being a victim of domestic violence, may be relevant in assessing her state of mind for the purposes of mitigation – and to her credit, she did admit what she had done – but none of those things should excuse somebody from being punished. This point, I think, goes to the root of what a criminal justice system is for. I believe one important purpose is to reinforce the point that individuals are responsible for their own actions. Some people, myself included, would say that alcoholism and drug abuse should, if anything, be considered an aggravating factor. I simply do not see how her failure to exercise self-control can be a point in her favour.

    We are left with the simple reality that a responsible adult individual has not been punished for serious criminal acts. I also do not find credible this notion that her sex and class did not play a part in the sentencing decision. It clearly did, and I have a used car available for sale on eBay for anybody who thinks it didn’t. It’s real goer. Only 10,000 miles on the clock, really. Some things cannot be proven exactly, but are plainly obvious to all but the most credulous among us.

    Defendants should have due process, and of course we should be wary of tabloid-like criticisms about fine-tuned and fact-specific judicial decisions, but I think there can be little doubt that the system needs to toughen up.

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    • A few points I would make:

      Was this overly lenient? I don’t believe so, the point of a sentence is to balance what best serves, the victim, society and the one found guilty. Is there a punitive nature to sentencing absolutely, to act as punishment for the crime and as a deterrent to others, but also there is the question of what best serves society. a fully functioning citizen giving back is the best and so whatever is more conducive to the rehabilitation of that person is good for society as a whole – in this circumstance counselling and monitoring feels the best option for me, the threat of ‘but if that doesn’t work then you will face prison.

      Secondly, did her class and gender play a role? I would agree with you on this it probably did, that doesn’t make this sentence wrong it just brings into question other similar situations that are sentenced more harshly and whether or not that is correct. I would argue that the problem is we are too prison heavy for certain classes of people, but the answer to that isn’t let’s have a race to the bottom and dish out more custodial sentences, but more let’s take a better holistic view of it all.

      it is a balance of restorative v punitive justice, for me restorative takes precedence and so I will always think Prison is to be used where necessary not as the first choice.

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      • Being an alcoholic (assuming there is such a thing as ‘alcoholism’ – I am sceptical) is not an excuse for committing crimes. Taking drugs is not an excuse for committing crimes. Being depressed or having a mental illness is not an excuse for committing crimes.

        Obviously I appreciate that in certain legal situations, a defendant can have a legal defence on the basis that he was not in control of, or did not fully appreciate the consequences of, his actions, and that sort of defence may touch on substance abuse or mental health. However that would be on the basis that the defendant’s state of mind was not that of a guilty person. Here, the defendant admits her guilt, yet she asks the court in mitigation to take into account her drinking and drugging and punish her more leniently on the basis that she is not responsible for her own behaviour. She is arguing that these are medical or pseudo-medical conditions of some sort that she is afflicted with, not behavioural choices she has made herself. With due respect, that is totally outrageous. Her bad choices are not reasons for lenient punishment.

        In truth, there is no such thing as alcoholism or drug addiction. These are just pseudo-medical terms invented to excuse bad behaviour. If I drink, that is my choice and I take the consequences that flow from my choice. This woman should have been properly punished for her bad behaviour. That is what the courts are for. That is what we trust these judges to do. Apart from anything else, the defendant herself is poorly served here. If she aspires to become a doctor, that’s fine, but the first step in re-building her character and rehabilitating herself so that she can be considered fit for medical practice is that she must accept responsibility for her bad behaviour and serve her time in prison. How can we trust her as a doctor in the future if she can’t accept the consequences of her actions now? I know it’s difficult, but these things are meant to be difficult.

        What I have outlined is the canonical view of the criminal justice system. It is what we are told is how things work and what’s expected of us, and it’s certainly the sort of message a working class man would probably get from the courts, in a similar situation. I would receive no sympathy and I’d be in prison now, if this was me. I can almost picture the Circuit Judge now, delivering his smug self-righteous sermon and telling me that my personal problems are “no excuse”. Oh really..??

        Perhaps personal problems ARE an excuse when your lawyers are being paid handsomely and you have a nice plummy accent, or failing that, when you’re in one of the designated victim groups in our PC-obsessed society.

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  5. A judge so mesmerized by the remorse shown that he felt able to overlook the breaking of bail conditions necessary for its expression:

    “Secondly, I find that you were genuinely remorseful following this event and, indeed, though it was against your bail conditions, you contacted your partner to fully confess your guilt and your deep sorrow for what happened.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • “A judge so mesmerized by the remorse shown that he felt able to overlook the breaking of bail conditions necessary for its expression”

      Come now, it’s not like “History of poor compliance with court orders” is specifically cited as one of the three reasons a suspended sentence should be off the table.

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  6. You are missing the point completely. The objection here is that if a MALE had done it he would be in jail, however as its a female she has been let off. Even if everything else had been equal with past history etc. Would a male with past drug use and violent home been allowed to get away?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I frequently see judges give weight to early Guilty pleas when considering whether to suspend sentences.

    Is this a codified rule, or merely a judicial custom? Do you think it had any bearing on the decision in this case?

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  8. “although it was against your bail conditions you contacted your partner to fully confess your guilt ”
    What are your thoughts on this? She broke the bail conditions but the judge used that as a mitigating factor.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Possibly the first time ever that breaching a bail condition is treated as a mitigating factor.

    I bet her personality disorder will have been miraculously cured when ste seeks to resume her medical career.

    This is a case where public confidence in teh system has been damaged and might be appropriate for a referral to the Court of Appeal by the Attorney General. If the Appeal Court were to agree with the trial judge the justifiable public conceren over this case might recede.

    But is it too late now for an AG’s referralk?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I have no problem with her sentence being suspended but will be seriously concerned if she ever goes on to practice as a surgeon.
    I am all for rehab but the idea of a crazed person (with what is actually now known as emotionally unstable personality disorder of the borderline type),with a history of drug and alcohol abuse and extreme violence in theatre does not fill me with optimism.I hope the BMA will say that she has crossed a line .

    Liked by 1 person

    • Did you fail to read the article? This was hardly “extreme violence”, violent as it was. She will be subject to all the same restrictions as any other surgeon, which presumably includes doing surgery under the influence, and there is no evidence of her acting “crazed” except under distressing circumstances and under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.

      Rehabilitation means nothing if past behaviour controls future opportunity. Once her sentence is up, she has completed her training and she has proven herself clear of drugs/alcohol, she should be allowed the same opportunities available to any other surgeon.

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      • I don’t know what world you live in but the violence described sounded pretty dangerous.I had a client whose husband bled to death after a stab wound to that part of the leg.
        Rehab…fine.
        Becoming a fucking surgeon…really not fine.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Nothing to do with the BMA, they are just the trade union. It’s the General Medical Council that has the responsibility for judging fitness to practice.

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  11. Very interesting and helpful. I changed my mind a little after reading this.

    While it’s clearly not as simple as a case of “toff privilege”, in the guidelines about whether it’s appropriate to suspend the sentence, “Realistic prospect of rehabilitation” stands out as particularly ripe for interpretation, and will doubtless benefit people from particular backgrounds.

    Doesn’t this guideline, for all its good intentions, in reality benefit people who can afford excellent therapy, rehab, and who live in a more middle class environment?

    I also found the judge’s language regarding her previous relationship and introduction to drugs interesting: it almost divested her of all responsibility for drug use and her choice of company.

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      • Pot, kettle, black. The fact is that she stabbed someone. The legitimate argument is that she got off with a more lenient sentence than a member of the lower orders would have done.

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      • Your reply makes no sense: I read the article and responded (along lines similar to your final point), and it was pointed out that that was covered in the article — I’d somehow missed it. I therefore changed my mind. You, on the other hand, seem not to have read the article at all, nor the comment thread.

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  12. “Emotionally unstable personality disorder” is a common misdiagnosis for autism/ Aspergers in women.

    23% of people (usually women) with an eating disorder are on the autistic spectrum.

    1 in 4 people with dependent drug and/or alcohol issues are on the autistic spectrum.

    One can’t really judge Miss Woodward’s particular issues without having met her but these are all red flags for something else going on.

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    • You may well be right and I don’t want her in prison.But I really don’t want her let loose in a surgical theatre.
      If you are up for that,fine.Maybe that could be the new idea for queue busting.The triage nurse can ask us if we mind being sorted out by a person with a personality disorder,a record for stabbing and a history of drug and alcohol abuse.
      Go to the front of the queue madam.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. “You may think there should be more women with mental health problems clogging up our prisons rather than receiving treatment in the outside world and trying to forge careers for themselves.”

    That’s incredibly simplistic. Throughout my career in psychiatric care I’ve predominantly worked with women diagnosed with emotionally unstable personality disorder, and can assure you that people who excuse their actions because of their diagnosis often only exacerbate their behaviour. It removes accountability and can result in some of them using their disorder as an excuse for physical aggression, often against the people trying to support them. In many of these cases I do believe that such women should be in prison, even those who are under section. So long as you can clearly understand the difference between right and wrong, having mental health difficulties is never an excuse for violence.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. What about the breaching of Bali conditions being regarded as a mitigating factor by the judge? That surprised me and wonder if it will lead to other defendants breaching their bail conditions not to contact their domestic violence victim.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I read every day and what I want are facts. Thank you for taking the time to write in The Newstateman to explain this case (26 Sept 2017). The Young Turks (US internet media) opinion of this incident was that she was too white for prison and the printed UK media presentation (some not all) of this incident was that she was too posh for prison. Your analysis of this case is welcomed. I read the comments on your original piece (May 2017). Amongst the many clichés on class, race and housing, two commentators touched on gender. I think this is where unintentional bias can occur. I too am female. My concern is that if a person rings the police emergency service reporting danger from their partner, a male attacking a female may be remanded i.e. held in custody. The Daily Mail reported (12 May 2017) on Costas Contostavlos (N-dubz rapper Dappy) and he was remanded. The cases have similarity to the newspaper reader in that a bread knife was brandished. Both received suspended sentences. Whilst Mr Contostavlos’s sentence is half of Ms Woodward, the Daily Mail (26 June 2017) commented on him sporting a black eye which I guess is a fashion accessory of remand. Mr Contostavlos’s partner seems a very decent individual in that she admitted her role in the argument and praise for him as his role as parent. I take comfort from Ms Woodward’s arrest, the reportage of her case in the media (all not some), the examination of her behaviour at a Crown Court not just a Magistrate’s Court, the judgement (which your analysis helps me to understand) and the fact that she was not remanded. I want this comfort applied to both genders not just one.

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  16. Pingback: Interesting Links for 28-09-2017 | Made from Truth and Lies

  17. It seems extraordinary that the judge chose to interpret her clear breach of bail conditions as a mitigating, rather than an aggravating, factor. An alternative interpretation of her actions may have been that she was seeking to influence the victim in an attempt to persuade him to change his statement, or cease to assist the prosecution. As others here, and elsewhere, have noted, would the actions of a male in identical circumstances have been interpreted in such a beneficial manner? Or, for that matter, a young black woman from the Blackbird Leys estate outside Oxford, who hadn’t the benefit of family money to see her through expensive private hospital treatment and counselling in order to show how well she was doing in overcoming her (alleged) drug addiction? Of course they wouldn’t, and you’re deceiving no one of you claim that they would.

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  18. She didn’t get off lightly because she’s pretty. It’s the other way around: she was splashed all over the media because she’s pretty. Oh and a little class warfare – it is Britain, after all. A cut on the leg? An ordinary domestic barney in some parts of the country. If she were unattractive, none of us would ever have heard about it, but her face generated a few internet clicks for the media.

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  19. Pingback: A reply to Lord Adonis on sentencing, prisons and judges | The Secret Barrister

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