Lavinia Woods gets a suspended sentence – are the Courts biased in...

Lavinia Woods gets a suspended sentence – are the Courts biased in favour of women?

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Photo from the BBC

Introduction 

On 17th May 2017, Lavinia Woods, a 24 year old medical student with the ambition of being a surgeon, pleaded guilty to stabbing her boyfriend in the leg.

There was an inevitable debate when, having pleaded guilty to an offence of s20 wounding, sentence was adjourned for some months with a suggestion that she would not receive a custodial sentence on the basis that that “would affect her career prospects“.

So, expect more debate (much of it ill informed) when, on 25th September 2017, Ms Woods (in the misconceived words of a tabloid newspaper) ‘walked free from Court’ with a Suspended Sentence.

 

Facts

It seems that Ms Woods had become addicted to drugs, and possibly alcohol, during a relationship with a previous abusive boyfriend. Last December, Ms Woods had been drinking when her new boyfriend came to visit.

Seeing that she had been drinking, he contacted her mother. At this point, Ms Woods seems to have lost it – “She threw a laptop at him and stabbed him in the lower leg with a breadknife, also injuring two of his fingers. Woodward then tried to stab herself with the knife before he disarmed her“.

The Judge described her behaviour as very much out of character, and very much a one off. Ms Woodward was a capable student, and had hopes of being a surgeon (although its not clear that the GMC will look that much more favourably on a suspended than an immediate sentence).

For that reason, he deferred the sentence – an unusual step where instead of adjourning the case for a specific reason (usually a pre-sentence report), he puts it off for normally 3 or 6 months with the offender supposed to show that s/he can keep out of trouble and conditions are imposed to address a particular aspect of their behaviour, or something similar.

We don’t have the sentencing remarks, but it seems that Ms Woodward remained drug free and, in light of the fact that “there were “many, many mitigating factors” and the injuries inflicted were “relatively minor”, the Judge felt able to suspend the sentence.

For that reason, she was given a sentence of 10 months, suspended for 18 months (the conditions, if any, weren’t in the BBC report).

 

Do women get special treatment from the Courts?

This is the question that got raised in the press, with the belief that this sentence shows that women are treated more leniently by the Courts. But is that right?

The first thing to do is look at what sentence you would expect for the offence, which involves turning to the Sentencing Guidelines (have a look at page 7).

From the Judge’s comments, it would appear to be lesser harm on the basis that the injuries were not that serious (in the context of a s20 offence which requires ‘really serious harm‘). Some might say that the attack was ‘sustained or repeated’, but that would be a stretch.

In terms of culpability, there is ‘use of a weapon‘ which indicates higher culpability. On the other hand, ‘lack of premeditation‘ indicates lower culpability. It’s not easy to say which it is, and it is fair to say that most Judges would probably put it on the cusp of the two (although veering slightly towards the higher).

This would give an expected sentence of about 12-15 months. From that, credit must be given for a plea of guilty. We don’t know when this was, but there is no suggestion that it was at the last minute.

That would give a range of about 9 to 12 months, something like that. Given we don’t of course have the full details, it’s not easy to say, but we would think the sentence would be towards the top of that.

But, the sentence that was passed – 10 months – is well within the range of what we would expect. So, the first test would suggest that there was not an unduly low sentence.

What about the fact that it was suspended? Again, this was well within the discretion of the Judge. Given that Ms Woods was of good character, had shown remorse, and had done work on tackling her addictions, she was a prime candidate for one.

Of course domestic violence is serious, but it does not mean that everyone who commits such an offence should go to prison. On the face of it, there were many reasons why Ms Woods should not.

The more tricky question is what would have happened if it was the other way round and it was a hypothetical Mr Woods in the dock. To my mind, it would not make a difference, and the sentence should again be suspended.

It may well be that the Judge would have been somewhat more circumspect about referring to Mr Woods career prospects, and it may also be that there would have been more of an outcry calling for him to be jailed, but there is no reason why the sentence should not be the same.

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28 COMMENTS

  1. Q: Has the impotency of the British Judiciary lead to it digging its self into a rancid corner of aspergic thinking & dogma?

  2. Lavinia Woods is a violent drug crazed psychopath who ought to have been charged with attempted murder, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. The Court of Appeal must increase this unduly lenient sentence. The victim had shown immense bravery in coming forward and taking a stand against his abuser and should be commend for his courageous actions.

  3. Viscount St Davids, is scandalously imprisoned for mere words and a drunken joke (not broadcast by him), but because he mentioned “race” he is jailed; a u/c female viciously attacked a young man w/ a knife and more, and is freed w/out any punishment, not even a fine ( a large one), nor compensation, nor apology, nor community service…,nor probation, nor anger management classes, nor drug rehabilitation, nor flogging..was daddy a freemason? Even if one is against females being imprisoned unnecessarily this is still outrageous.

  4. While a suspended sentence may have been appropriate had Lavinia Woods been male, there is some evidence that the courts are more lenient towards females, and a male may have been jailed for the same crime. Another question is whether Lavinia Woods received a more lenient sentence than she would have otherwise because she is from a relatively privileged background, and it may have been the case that she did.

    I feel the sentence she received is about right, and I hope that she is able to move on from what happened and that it doesn’t effect the rest of her life, I would just like to see the courts be as magnanimous to all Defendants, male or female, rich or poor.

  5. This sentence struck me as possibly lenient, so I turned to this blog as I often do when a criminal case is in the news. As usual, the explanation of how the sentence was arrived at is vastly better than anything I have seen from the media, and has satisfied my curiosity.

    Carl: Two claims you have made are questionable. Do you have evidence that Woods is a psychopath? This is a term from psychiatric medicine that relates to specific abnormalities of personality and patterns of behaviour. I am not sure what you are basing your diagnosis on other than the fact of the stabbing. Lots of people commit stabbings without being psychopaths.

    Second, you suggest a charge of attempted murder. Do you have evidence that Woods intended to kill her victim, and do you think there was a realistic prospect of convincing a jury of this beyond reasonable doubt? It is of course the case that stabbing someone could result in their death, but you know very well that not everyone who carries out a stabbing intends to kill, and this is important when considering the offence of attempted murder.

    Anon: You raise questions about general patterns of bias in relation to gender and class. These are surely interesting possibilities to explore, and the way to do it would be to systematically go through all cases in some recent period, or a representative sample of such cases, to identify mitigating and aggravating factors and separate these from the gender and background of the defendant. The factors would then be presented ‘blind’ to another researcher with some understanding of sentencing, who would predict the sentence, rather like the authors of this blog sometimes do between verdict and sentencing in cases that make the news. These predictions could then be compared with the sentences as actually passed and statistical techniques applied to see if there were significant differences in how defendants of different gender and background were dealt with. Straightforward to design, somewhat laborious to complete, but worth doing to give us something better to go on than anecdote and speculation. If such research has been done I would be interested to read it.

    • In response to questions 1 and 2: I refer to the case of Tracie Andrews / Lee Harvey.
      Woodard exhibits in her behaviour the classic symptoms of the psychopath in that she (Woodard) is in total denial and is utterly delusional in her belief that she will ever be considered as a person of trust and or that she will ever be put in such a position.

      In relation to the question of attempted murder I again refer to the case of Tracie Andrews i.e. the defensive wounds sustained to the hands of Woodard’s victim in his terrifying struggle to fend her off during the attack. I ask you to consider the outcome had the shoe been on the other foot in that it was a case of male on female attack, would she have been physically able restrain her attacker ? I say no.

  6. If you think a male who stabbed a female in the leg with a knife would have received a suspended sentence you need to give your head a shake. There’s absolutely no chance whatsoever he would and I say that as a practising barrister who’s been working in the field for over a decade.

  7. David, I would be interested in the type of analysis you suggest in terms of gender/class bias, but I am not aware of it having been produced. I myself wouldn’t have the time or knowledge of statistical techniques you describe, and I believe the information you suggest would be extremely difficult and time consuming to come by in practice. However, I am aware of research by the Home Office and Ministry of Justice which indicate a gender gap in terms of sentencing which is against males. I regard this as evidence, rather than anecdote (which can still be useful) and speculation (still worthwhile). If you find research of the type you describe or are able to carry out this type of research I’d be very interested in the results.

    With regards to class bias, I haven’t seen statistical evidence on this, but I do feel that the possibility that the sentence may have been more severe had the Defendant been a brilliant road sweeper or brilliant lollipop lady rather than a medical student at Oxford. I’m not sure if this is the case, but maybe, just maybe, it was.

    That said, I do believe the sentence was the right one, albeit that there may have been underlying bias. I’m dismayed at the JCIO investigation as I feel that the judge was brave to give the sentence he did and give Lavinia Woods a chance, I’d just like to see the same opportunity offered to everyone. In reality, the JCIO investigation is about the leniency of the sentence, and I find it sad that there the JCIO isn’t looking more at the conduct of judges where the sentences handed out are overly harsh.

  8. The JCIO has kicked the complaint into touch for the usual and sufficient reason: it was about a judicial decision rather than the personal conduct of the judge. And quite right too and I am glad they were so quick about it.

    • Agreed. Whilst the number of complaints upheld by the JCIO is lamentably low, I believe this complaint was about the decision to suspend the sentence rather than about the conduct of the judge.

  9. Do you think there is a role for gender based sentencing if we were to look at society in general, male footballers earn signifcantly more than their female counterparts, male tennis players at Wimbledon used to earn more than women players, male drivers used to pay higher premiums because they were a significant menace on the roads as the actuarial tables bear out, men commit 92% or all violent crime and 98%+ of all sexual offences. Given that men perform in the area of committing crime so much better than us women, in keeping with society in general it seems only fair and just that they get greater ‘rewards’ when they get caught.

    • “men commit 92% or all violent crime and 98%+ of all sexual offences. Given that men perform in the area of committing crime so much better than us women, in keeping with society in general it seems only fair and just that they get greater ‘rewards’ when they get caught.”

      Legalising criminal activity helps to skew those statistics.

    • Still, statistical and anecdotal evidence indicates a justice gap in terms of sentencing which is biased against males. I don’t think this can be condoned, nor do I think it can be justified as somehow balancing out the fact that male footballers are paid more than female footballers or that male tennis players used to receive more prize money than female players in grand slam events.

      Re the sentence handed out to Lavinia Woods, I agree with the sentence, although I am not convinced that the same sentence would have been given had she not come from a privileged background, that’s just my view. I do understand the desire to take into account peoples’ potential when sentencing though. Lavinia Woods isn’t an Oxbridge grad, she is a student at Oxford.

      Re the first link you sent, this relates to a different crime from that which Lavinia Woods stood trial for, so can’t be used as a direct comparator. Also, you mention ‘another’ case where a male wasn’t sentenced to prison time, but its not clear what are the previous cases you are referring to.

      Re the second link you sent, this relates to a petition for the sentence to be reviewed. This can be done if it is felt the sentence was too low (but not, as far as I am aware, too high). This isn’t the same as a complaint to the JCIO, which was made in Lavinia Woods’ case and which relates to complaints about the personal conduct of a judge. As the defendant in the case you mention wasn’t a judge, it wouldn’t have been possible to complain to the JCIO about him, so again the example you give is not directly comparable.

      I am not aware of who ‘the brotherhood’ are, or why they might start to beat their chests, so I can’t comment on that.

      • I think it can be condoned men get rewarded for everything they do because of their gender now let them get punished because of it too. Unless of course we want to tackle gender based discrimination starting with a society that favours men over women. Nope men don’t want that, they want it to be only the bits where men perceive they are not treated more favourably than women like they are everywhere else.

          • And yet the detrimental treatment of women through political, social and economic structures in a male dominated patriarchal society is accepted as the norm, and outrage is only expressed about it where men perceive (rightly or wrongly) that they are being subject to the unfair treatment to which women are routinely subject (see examples above). The outrage however is not because of an overall unjust society no it is the outrage of a gender that perceives itself as superior being treated as though it were not.

          • Nice story.

            However, perhaps the admin could respectfully remind the author that this is a forum for law and not romantic fiction ?

      • “statistical and anecdotal evidence indicates a justice gap in terms of sentencing which is biased against males”

        Please be specific and cite your sources when making reference to particular bits of research that would clearly be useful to this discussion!

        • Thanks for your appraisal of my comment David! I’d recommend some background reading on the subject – there’s a lot of information available.

          Evidence I’ve seen is as follows:

          Statistical: As previously advised, sources are Home Office and MOJ.

          Anecdotal: Sorry, thought the source would have been obvious, practising barrister commenting on this article above.

          You haven’t given an update on the research you proposed in your original comment, but I would still like to see it if you find it or if you have time to produce it. One thing I would advise when preparing such research – it appears from your line of questioning (and forgive me if I’m wrong) that you don’t believe that a justice gap which negatively effects males exists in relation to sentencing and that the intention in asking for evidence is to discredit it rather than evaluate it. I’d recommend that you view any evidence with an open mind without making pre-judgements or it will be difficult to reach an impartial conclusion.

          I completely understand that the existence of a justice gap is unfair, but unfortunately wishing it away or denial of its existence won’t make it disappear.

  10. Although my view is that I don’t think anybody, male or female, should be rewarded or punished because of their gender.

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