Blog: 10-year Extended Sentence Quashed for Vulnerable and Abused Mother
Success for the Centre's Women's Justice Initiative
by Naima Sakande
People often think that as criminal appeals practitioners, our work consists of striding through the halls of the Royal Courts of Justice, a small entourage of wigged and suited lawyers clutching bundles of paper, boldly telling judges they’ve gotten it wrong. But the reality of the appeals system is often far less glamorous.
We squirrel away making numerous requests to access documents, spend hours researching obscure points of law and write draft after draft of CCRC applications or grounds for appeal. Then we send those off and wait for a response, which is sometimes years in coming. Often the drama of the courtroom isn’t available to us and instead our ‘Big News’ is delivered via officially stamped brown paper envelopes.
So, when the Centre for Criminal Appeals’ Women’s Justice Initiative recently picked up a compelling case with a court date attached, it was a rare and exciting opportunity to make our case in front of a panel of judges and get a swift decision.
The Centre’s Women’s Justice Initiative exists to support and represent women who have been wrongfully convicted or sentenced. We take on strategic cases in areas where domestic abuse hasn’t been properly considered, mental illness has been disregarded or where a crime in fact never occurred.
When a lady whom I will call ‘A’ wrote to me a few months ago, I was immediately interested in helping. This woman had been convicted of harming her baby but was suffering from severe PTSD as a result of the terrible abuse she survived at the hands of her ex-partner. The sentencing judge had found her to be dangerous, despite her having no previous convictions for violence and no previous concerns being raised about her parenting. He had given her a 10-year extended sentence.
Extended sentences exist for the most dangerous offenders in our system. They ensure that those deemed a high risk to society can only be released in the sentence period if they pass the parole board’s stringent conditions. Where with most determinate sentences, prisoners will serve half their sentence in custody and half on licence in the community, extended sentences mean that offenders can serve up to the full sentence length.
A is a deeply vulnerable woman, with a severe mental health diagnosis who was struggling to raise two children and a new-born baby within a relationship so abusive one experienced psychologist described it as torture.
When she wrote to us she had already been refused permission to appeal by a Single Judge. She was now renewing her application before the full Court of Appeal, appealing against that initial refusal as well as the length of her sentence. Her trial lawyers were no longer willing to represent her and due to the Single Judge’s refusal of permission she was not eligible for any public funding. She was completely on her own – until we came along.
We found wonderful pro bono support from the indomitable barristers Paramjit Alhuwalia from Lamb Building Chambers and Sophie Walker from One Pump Court Chambers, who both saw the need for fierce and brave advocacy on behalf of A. Instructed with just under a week’s notice, they put in a huge amount of work to lodge strong amended grounds for appeal detailing our client’s full circumstances.
We believed we had a strong case for a sentencing appeal. We argued that the sentencing judge had incorrectly applied draft sentencing guidelines and had not considered her mitigating circumstances when making his initial finding. But you can never be certain how the Court of Appeal will rule, and A was taking a risk in renewing her appeal. If the Court of Appeal Judges had found against her they could have made a Loss of Time Order, ordering that some of the time she had already spent in custody wouldn’t count towards her sentence, effectively pushing her release date even further back.
We were overjoyed that we were able to persuade the Court that the Single Judge had got it wrong and granted us leave to appeal. They went on to quash the original 10-year extended sentence and replaced it with a 5-year determinate sentence, recognising that the sentencing court had made a significant error in finding this vulnerable woman to be ‘dangerous’. This means our client will now serve two and a half years, instead of a possible ten, a massive reduction.
We rarely get good news doing this work – the appeals system is notoriously difficult to navigate, and success rates are incredibly low. That is why I will never forget the phone call to A to give her the good news. She sobbed, and I won’t lie, I teared up too. For her, this sentence reduction is deeply significant, as it means she will not miss her children’s entire childhood. Her baby might remember and know who she is, and she will be able to be back with them all in time to celebrate important milestones. And with the dangerousness finding gone, she is now able to arrange better contact with her children from in prison, keeping that most crucial of relationships alive.
It’s important that we have a mechanism that acknowledges when the system has made mistakes and corrects them when it does. However, it is unfortunate that many in similar positions rarely have such an opportunity to have their case re-examined and a just outcome reached. Domestic violence and mental illness are still deeply underappreciated and misunderstood by our criminal system, and cases like A’s highlight why we must get it right. Ripping mothers away from their children and allowing violent partners to terrorise with impunity does not create a humane and proportionate justice system.
We must do better, and this is one step in the right direction.