On 17 November 2015, the Daily Mail – predictably – covered the story of (now former) teaching assistant Caroline Berriman, aged 30, who had a relationship with a pupil.
Berriman was a teacher at Abraham Moss Community School. The victim, a 15-year-old boy (who receives automatic lifetime anonymity) was a pupil at the school and was “tutored” by Berriman in English and Maths. Having contacted the victim via Facebook, the pair began to send each other text messages. The relationship then progressed to the pair meeting up, going for drives and watching TV together. The victim stated that Berriman’s child began to refer to him as “dad”, such was the extent of their relationship and the time they spent together. The victim lived with Berriman for a short period but after the relationship deteriorated he called ChildLine stating that he was considering taking his own life.
Over a period of some three months, the couple had sexual intercourse on 80 occasions and Berriman told the victim that she had fallen pregnant as a result and had subsequently undergone a termination.
Berriman pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual activity with a child (under s.9 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003) and in September 2015 fell to be sentenced.
Berriman was sentenced to a 2-year suspended sentence order comprising 250 hours unpaid work. Additionally, the court imposed a restraining order prohibiting Berriman from contacting the victim.
Attorney General’s Reference
The Solicitor General referred the sentence under the unduly lenient sentence scheme. On 17 November 2015, the case was heard at the Court of Appeal, with Lord Justice Treacy (chairman of the Sentencing Council) leading the court.
The court quashed the suspended sentence, stating that the judge had paid too much attention to the mitigation and considered that due to the gravity of the offending, an immediate custodial sentence was required. They imposed a 2-year immediate custodial sentence.
Applying the sentencing guidelines, this appears to be a Category 1 A case, by virtue of the fact that there was penetration (on multiple occasions) and an abuse of trust. That provides a starting point of five years.
With aggravating features including grooming behaviour (in contacting the child via Facebook and later, via text messages) and the length of time over which the conduct occurred, not to mention that a pregnancy resulted from the relationship, the starting point of 5 years would be legitimately increased.
Taking that to say, 6 years, it falls to consider the mitigation. The court referenced Berriman’s “family situation”, which we assume refers to the fact she is the carer of a child as meriting a reduction in sentence. With a full credit reduction for the guilty plea, the sentence of 6 years would be reduced to some thing in the region of 4 years. Less the fact that she is being sentenced for a second time (often called “double jeopardy”) and the fact she will have already completed some of her unpaid work under the suspended sentence, a sentence of 2 years seems within the permissible range.
Interestingly, Berriman was not charged with the abuse of trust offence regarding sexual activity with a child. The Act defines a “position of trust” as including “if A looks after persons under 18 who are receiving education at an educational institution and B is receiving, and A is not receiving, education at that institution.” and so it appears that she falls within that section. The offence carries a maximum sentence of 5 years’ imprisonment (compared with 14 years for the s.9 offence). A Category 1A offence for the abuse of trust offence has a starting point of just 18 months’ custody.