On 27th March 2017 Julie Higgins appeared for sentence at Bournemouth Crown Court for offences of pretending to be a doctor.
That sounds a pretty serious offence and the fact (more on that later) are pretty unpleasant. Probably serious enough for prison, you think?
The Judge said “When I first read these papers I had every intention of sentencing her to prison for what she did to you but my hands are tied“, and gave a Community Order.
Why is that?
For a ten year period, Ms Higgins (now aged 54) had told staff and customers at the hairdressers where she went to get her hair cut that she was a ‘surgeon and oncology specialist’ at Great Ormond Street.
In reality, she had no medical qualifications other than being a first aider. She didn’t just pretend to be a medic to just impress the people in the salon (if so, it probably wouldn’t have been prosecuted), but went considerably further.
Introduced to an Angela Murray who suffered a rare form of fibrosis, instead of coming clean or at least backing away, Ms Higgins pretended over a period of weeks to be helping her find lungs to transplant. As well as stringing her along, Ms Higgins “told her to go nil-by-mouth in preparation for a life-saving heart and lung transplant, claiming she had located suitable organs in Germany.”
There were various other examples of odd behaviour – it seems that Ms Higgins stated that she had “dissociative identity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder after being abused in her childhood“. As was perhaps inevitable it come to light and Ms Higgins was caught.
She pleaded guilty to an offence under the Medical Act 1983, as well as fraud.
We don’t have full details, but it seems that the fraud was that she got free haircuts in recognition of the good work that she was alleging that she was doing.
The offences under the Medical Act are summary only – the maximum penalty is a Level 5 fine. There was obviously no question of going to prison for that.
There is the Fraud Act offence. Here the maximum penalty is 10 years. The Judge would be bound to consider the Sentencing Guidelines for Fraud. On the face of it, it was quite low level – even if we push it a little and say that there was an abuse of trust (so High Culpability), the value of the loss is the value of the haircuts – so presumably hundreds of pounds, so at the bottom of Category 5.
This gives a starting point of 36 weeks, and a range of a community order up to 1 year in prison.
It may be that the Judge put it into category 5B, which goes up to a Community Order. It is not clear if this is what the Judge meant, when he said he was bound to not send Ms Higgins to prison.
And yet, and yet … just as rules are made to be broken, these are (as the saying goes) guidelines, not tramlines. In a suitable case a Judge can go outside the range, provided he gives full reasons why.
If this is not a suitable case for that, then what is? There is a principled argument that the fraud is removed from the deception of Ms Murray, and to send her to prison would be to ignore what Parliament said about the (relative lack of) seriousness of the offences of impersonating a doctor.
As always, there may be more to it than that, and the papers are not always accurate in their reporting of course. Having said that, it is hard to see that had a custodial sentence been imposed anyone would have thought that that was anything but a proper sentence for this offending.