Is there a class divide in our judicial system?

If you have looked at any form of media recently, you will have seen the phrases “too posh for prison” and “toff justice” relating to the Oxford University medical student Lavinia Woodward. Miss Woodward was spared a custodial sentence by His Honour Judge Pringle QC at her sentencing hearing in September 2017 whereby she was sentenced to 10 months’ imprisonment, suspended for 18 months following a guilty plea to one offence of unlawful wounding.

The case has attracted controversy since HHJ Pringle QC deferred sentencing to September 2017, and indicated that he MAY not impose a sentence of immediate custody if she could demonstrate over a lengthier period that she had “truly rid” herself of her alcohol and class A drug addiction. The suggestion in the national press is that Miss Woodward was ‘let off’ with merely a ‘slap on the wrist’ because of her privileged background and career ambitions. A brief consideration of the law and the Judge’s sentencing remarks demonstrates otherwise.

The Facts

In May 2017, at Oxford Crown Court, Lavinia Woodward admitted one count of unlawful wounding, contrary to section 20 of the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861. This offence occurred in her accommodation in Christ Church College, Oxford, whereby her boyfriend was visiting her. It is understood that at this time, Miss Woodward was suffering from the effects of a “very damaging” previous relationship with another who had introduced her to class A drugs. The facts are set out in the Judge’s sentencing remarks as follows: it became clear to Miss Woodward’s boyfriend that she had been drinking and he tried to discourage her from continuing her drinking without success. At one stage Miss Woodward’s boyfriend contacted her mother on Skype in order to seek her assistance over what to do about Miss Woodward’s behaviour. When Miss Woodward became aware of this, it is said that she became extremely angry and started to throw objects around. Miss Woodward’s boyfriend called the police, before she picked up a bread knife which was in the room and “struck a blow” with it to his lower leg. In the course of the incident, two of his fingers also received cuts. He was able to partially restrain Miss Woodward who then started to turn the knife on herself and so he had to further disarm her to prevent further self-harm. When the emergency services arrived, it was said to be abundantly clear that she was intoxicated, deeply distraught and mentally disturbed. Miss Woodward was arrested and taken to the nearby police station. The wounds suffered by Miss Woodward’s boyfriend were treated at the scene: two 1cm cuts to his fingers and a cut to the leg which was closed with three stitches.

During her first hearing at Oxford Crown Court, Miss Woodward entered a Guilty plea in this matter and HHJ Pringle QC heard submissions from the defence to defer sentence. Deferring sentence is different to adjourning sentence, it is a specific legal power that a Judge may use where they want to give a defendant an opportunity to save themselves from immediate prison. This is usually put to use in cases whereby the defendant’s offending is linked to substance abuse or mental health problems. This allows the Judge to ascertain whether the defendant will respond to treatment before sentence is decided. Certain requirements are placed upon the defendant, which if complied with, will likely result in the defendant avoiding a prison sentence.

In this case, HHJ Pringle QC explained that he had deferred sentence for two reasons: firstly, to allow Miss Woodward to continue with her counselling; secondly, so that she could demonstrate over a lengthier period of time that she had rid herself from her alcohol and drug addiction.

When Miss Woodward returned to Court four months later, HHJ Pringle QC was satisfied that these conditions had been met. Miss Woodward was sentenced to a suspended sentence of 10 months’ imprisonment, which outraged many. In order to understand this sentence, one must consider the sentencing guidelines that were applied.

Sentencing Exercise

The offence of unlawful wounding carries a maximum sentence of 5 years’ imprisonment. The first step in calculating a sentence requires the Judge to decide which Category the case falls into – this is done by identifying what specified feature of harm and culpability are present. In this case, the Judge held that there was lower harm because the injuries to Miss Woodward’s boyfriend were considered relatively minor in the context of this type of offence (this is an offence which covers a wide range of injuries, including life-threatening, scarring injuries and so the injuries in this case are minor in the context of this offence). Culpability was higher because of the weapon used, a knife. This means that the case falls into Category 2, which provides a starting point of 18 months’ imprisonment and a range of 1 year to 3 years’ custody.

The next step for the Judge is to decide where a defendant falls within this range, by applying aggravating factors (features which result in an upward adjustment from the starting point) and mitigating factors (features which result in a downward adjustment from the starting point).

In this case, HHJ Pringle QC considered that there was one aggravating factor present in this case, the fact that the defendant was heavily under the influence of alcohol at the time of the offence, regardless of the fact that this was as a result of a “previous and highly damaging relationship”. In terms of mitigating factors, the Judge considered that there were many mitigating features in this case: Miss Woodward had no previous convictions; was genuinely remorseful following this event and contacted her boyfriend to fully confess her guilty and “deep sorrow” for what happened; Miss Woodward had an immaturity about her which was not commensurate for someone of her age, and suffered from an emotionally unstable personality disorder, a severe eating disorder and alcohol and drug dependence (caused as a result of a previous abusive relationship). The Judge also noted that the defendant had demonstrated since the incident that she was determined to rid herself of her addictions and had undergone extensive treatment including counselling, despite the “enormous pressure under which [she] was put”.

Having applied these factors, HHJ Pringle QC adjusted the starting point downwards from 18 months to 15 months. Miss Woodward pleaded guilty at the first available stage, which attracts “credit”, a discount on her sentence of a third. This resulted in the arrival at a final sentence of 10 months’ imprisonment.

When a Court imposes a custodial sentence of between 14 days and two years (or six months in the magistrates’ court), the Court may choose to suspend the sentence for up to two years. This means that the offender does not go to prison immediately, but is given the chance to stay out of trouble and to comply with up to 12 requirements set by the Court. When sentencing a defendant, the Court must have regard to the five statutory purposes of sentencing: punishment; reduction of crime; reform and rehabilitation of offenders; protection of the public; and making reparations.

In this case, the Judge considered that more can constructively be achieved by avoiding sending “a promising young defendant” to prison and “shattering their life prospects”, instead offering a sentence focusing on rehabilitation to address the problems behind the offending. Given the mental health issues which Miss Woodward suffered from, combined with her genuine remorse, her good character and clear efforts to address her addictions; a suspended sentence of imprisonment, with punitive and rehabilitative requirements, serves those five principles discussed above.

In fact, when one considers the mental health aspects of this offending, this becomes a case whereby a victim of domestic abuse, with resulting mental health issues and substance misuse problems, was given a chance to move forward with her life, to seek greater things; rather than a case which reaffirms the notion of a class division in the justice system.


Having examined the sentencing exercise, we cannot identify any abnormalities in the reasoning of the Court. Regardless of one’s opinions on the crime itself, or of the defendant’s privileged background; legally, the sentence seems unproblematic.

In our experience, where a defendant with no previous convictions is facing a sentence of two years’ or less, with employment prospects or any family responsibilities, a reasonable Judge will seek to avoid imposing a sentence of immediate custody.

There is no denying that there is some social or racial bias in our justice system, but any claim that suspended sentences are reserved for the privileged would be inaccurate. It is not the case that the sentences are not passed in various types of cases, involving defendants from all backgrounds, it is merely the case that the media does not report these cases.

It was reported yesterday that Miss Woodward has applied for permission to appeal her sentence, this will be an interesting development which we will follow.

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