16 weeks’ custody for racist and abusive mother seven months’ pregnant

    16 weeks’ custody for racist and abusive mother seven months’ pregnant

    Solent News/Daily Echo/Daily Mail

    On 19 April 2017, expectant mother Elouise Sullivan aged 20 was given an immediate custodial sentence of 16 weeks following a guilty plea to (what we presume were) two Communications Act 2003 offences.

    What happened?

    Sullivan pleaded guilty to two offences of “sending offensive, indecent, obscene and menacing messages” – this appears to refer to an offence under s.127 of the Communications Act 2003. The offence carries a maximum sentence of 6 months. 

    Sullivan learned that the father of her unborn child had slept with two other women and embarked upon a fourth month “campaign of abuse” including sending racist insults and threats of physical harm. These included the use of the racist slur “monkey” in respect of one victim and a threat to jump up and down on the other victim’s head until blood was coming from her eyeballs. 

    Sullivan was said to be “more angry” with the women than her boyfriend as she “trusted them more”. She was given warnings by the police during the four month period but persisted in abusing the two women. 

    She had previously convictions including for robbery and violence. 


    The judge imposed a 16 week sentence, stating that only an immediate custodial sentence was appropriate. Additionally, the judge imposed a restraining order. The Mail reported that she was also fined £115. 


    A couple of points to make regarding the report:

    1. The news report wasnt entirely accurate in defining the offence. Section 127 actually states:

    (1) A person is guilty of an offence if he—

    (a) sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character; or

    (b) causes any such message or matter to be so sent.

    “Offensive” messages are not sufficient, they must be grossly offensive to meet the required standard.

    2. The “fine” of £115 is almost certainly not a fine, but the statutory surcharge which must be imposed by virtue of CJA 2003 s.161A. SI 2016/389 increased the sums such that a period of imprisonment up to six months attracts a £115 surcharge. That seems to fit the bill here.

    Moving on to the actual sentence imposed, the sentencing guidelines for this offence (part of the Magistrates’ Courts Sentencing Guidelines) follow the usual format: 

    Level 1 offences are those with high culpability and greater harm

    Level 2 are those with either high culpability and lesser harm or lower culpability and greater harm

    Level 3 are those with lower culpability and lesser harm

    Here there are appear to be none of either the greater harm or higher culpability factors present, however the prolonged nature of the abuse, the racial and violent elements and the failure to desist upon the receipt of (presumably) a harassment warning all increase the seriousness of the offences quite dramatically. Let it not be forgotten that there were two victims and two offences. The sentence doesnt seem to be too far out of the way, however the pregnancy – in particular the fact that Sullivan is seven months pregnant adds an interesting aspect to the decision.

    In recent years, the Court of Appeal has taken a tougher approach to personal mitigation – that is, mitigation which relates to the offender (or their family etc.) rather than the offence or the circumstances surrounding it. The court has dismissed appeals grounded in the claims that ill health or old age should act as a significant mitigating factor warranting a large reduction in sentence. The basis for such decisions has been that there is a presumption that the prison system can cope with such health needs and a move towards the requirement that evidence to the contrary be presented to the court if a submission to  the contrary is to be made.

    The decision to impose immediate custody (of 16 weeks – thereby taking Sullivan to or very near to full term if she is released at half way or shortly before on home detention curfew) therefore appears to be in line with the current approach taken by the Court of Appeal.

    Was it necessary? Would a suspended sentence have sufficed? That is a matter of personal opinion, but it may be that the judge thought her options were limited as Sullivan was (presumably) unsuitable for unpaid work, and a curfew requirement would not add much by way of punishment given the fact she will be spending some time at home recovering from the birth and looking after her new born baby. In those circumstances, and given the need to mark this serious offending with a punishment, perhaps the judge was justified in concluding that a short sharp immediate custodial sentence was the correct approach.


    1. If Ms Sullivan was pregnant at the time of committing these offences I’m surprised the impact of her pregnancy, the surge in hormones, and its ability to affect behaviour wasn’t taken into account. Unless the pregnancy occurred afterwards and does this mean she’s also got back together with the no good cheating partner?

    2. Sentencing pregnant offenders poses a dreadful dilemma. I’ve done it as a JP a few times and always managed to find reasons for a non-custodial or at least a suspended sentence. But I can imagine cases where it won’t do – and it may be that this defendant’s past record influenced the DJ in her approach. Female defendants – pregnant or not – with convictions for robbery and violence are not common but a record like that cannot be ignored.

      She will not give birth in prison; every women’s prison has arrangements with a local hospital for this case. When Anne Widdecombe was the Prisons Minister they were chained to the bed while they gave birth but her softie-liberal successors have given that up. So far none of them has done a runner.

      Some years ago there was an incident when a woman did indeed give birth in Holloway: there had been some sort of major incident which gummed up the roads completely. She and the baby were taken to hospital afterwards and the birth was registered as having happened there. Nobody, but nobody, starts life with a certificate of having been born in prison!

    3. And I share your puzzlement about why she would get back together with Mr Sleazeball and why whe resented the women more than him, but there’s nowt so bloody weird as folks, is there?

    4. It could be that she loves her boyfriend, that’s her call.

      A 16 weeks jail sentence for a pregnant woman is inhumane though, it would have been better and more productive for a mediated solution to this.

    5. “These included the use of the racist slur “monkey” in respect of one victim and a threat to jump up and down on the other victim’s head until blood was coming from her eyeballs.”

      Not sure how you mediate with types like that.

      In an ideal world she would get custody to served at some point after her baby was born, but she would probably just disappear from sight, which would do the child no favours either.

      • Same as you mediate with anyone – by keeping an open mind and encouraging people to communicate effectively and move past the rhetoric. Its doubtful she would use language like that in a properly conducted mediation.

        Custodial sentences in cases like this generally don’t achieve much, and jailing pregnant women for no good reason isn’t a good advert for the country. Agree with you that waiting for the baby to be born and then jailing her isn’t a good idea.

    6. She was given a warning to stop the communications and harassment but did not heed the warning. Clearly an unpleasant individual and the fact that she is pregnant should not be a bar to a custodial sentence as I’m sure she will be taken care of. As for the “hormones” defence, millions of women become pregnant in the UK each year, but few conduct themselves in this manner with such aggression.

      • Still doesn’t reflect well on the justice system though, jailing pregnant women unnecessarily, whether or not they’re unpleasant. I don’t say pregnancy should be a bar, but it is a significant mitigating factor.

        • It is – but not always mitigating enough. Anna – would it change your mind if she seemed to have got pregnant while awaiting trial?

          There is a famous murder case from the twenties where the defendant was alleged to have tried that – unsuccessfully although in the event she did not hang. No pregnant woman or at least no woman known to be pregnant was ever hanged – not even after giving birth.

          • You make a good point, although in the case here this doesn’t appear to be the case. I think though, that such cases would be rare (and difficult to prove that the intention of pregnancy was to avoid prison). Fair point though – where intent was proven I would favour a stronger punishment, although still not prison.

        • It was called “pleading her belly” – our predecessors called a spade a spade – and if it was in dispute the issue was determined by a “jury of matrons” – which meant widows. And those juries of matrons were the first woman ever to take part in the judicial process!

          • Very interesting historical background info, one of the good things about this blog is that it can lead to this type of information being provided, which puts current legal practice in context with the past. Thanks again.