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.
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.