The recent case of Mark Webb pleading guilty in Bristol Crown Court to perverting the course of justice gives the chance to have a look at just how seriously the courts regard those who try to con the system.
From the various news reports, Mark Webb framed his neighbour Francis Avis for harassment and criminal damage, by forging letters purporting to have been written by or on behalf of Ms Avis, and then reporting all of this to the police. At first they believed him. They took a witness statement and arrested Ms Avis. She denied it all, as you might expect, but she was charged and prosecuted anyway. Mark Webb was a good liar, because he came to court and the Magistrates believed him as well. Ms Avis was convicted of harassment and criminal damage, and eventually sentenced to imprisonment, albeit suspended. Some energetic and high quality policing eventually got to the bottom of it all, and exposed Mr Webb as someone who had set out to frame Ms Avis for an offence she simply did not commit. He pleaded guilty on the day of trial and sentencing has been adjourned to June.
There are no formal sentencing guidelines for the offence of perverting the course of justice, and the seriousness of the offence, always dealt with in a Crown Court, can vary enormously.
In this case, the nature of the offence is one of ‘Incriminating an Innocent Person’. Perverting cases are commonly about avoiding a conviction (such as taking penalty points for someone else in the style of Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce) or assisting an offender, such giving false alibi or tipping off a suspect. Perjury is another type of this offence, which is giving false evidence in court. The offence can arise in both the criminal and civil justice system.
Every case turns very much on its specific facts. Ultimately, the court must always balance the culpability or blameworthiness of the offender and the harm caused by the offence, both to the victim directly and the justice system more widely. Nonetheless, such offences will always be regarded seriously. They are said to strike at the heart of the justice system. A person convicted of such an offence, on any basis, will almost inevitably face a custodial sentence.
Some case examples provide guidance. In a 1999 case of Sadiq a man tried to frame his ex-girlfriend as a drug dealer by planting drugs in her flat and tipping off the police. It was described as a deliberate, calculated attempt to get the young women into serious trouble. The ruse was discovered before she was prosecuted. He got 2 years in prison.
In 2002 there was an appeal case where a women made a false allegation of burglary and harassment against a former partner, which lead him to being charged and kept in custody for several weeks before it was dropped. She didn’t end up in court herself on appeal until nearly three years after the offence. She was given a community order, albeit only because she came to court so long after the offence, was of effectively good character, had remarried and started a new life. It is a very rare example of a non-custodial sentence in such cases.
In another 2002 case of Pearson the defendant faked a burglary and tried to frame another man for it to get out of having to pay HP premiums she was stuck with after leaving her violent husband. The man was arrested but not charged. She had never been in any trouble, but was given 8 months in prison all the same.
Some of these cases are high profile. In the 2003 Milroy-Sloane case the defendant accused the ex-Tory MP Neil Hamilton and his wife of rape. Those allegations didn’t ultimately come to a prosecution, but it was a cynical attempt to make money. The defendant was a trainee teacher and mother of four, but still got 3 years inside.
In a 2003 case, Jeffrey Archer famously made up his own story to concoct a false alibi to help him win a civil libel trial against The Star newspaper. He was convicted of perverting the course of justice and perjury amongst other things. It was an offence committed over a long period of time, involved others and was persistently dishonest conduct. He got 4 years.
More recently, a 2016 case of Khan involved a man producing a fake loan agreement in a civil case against a former partner for the recovery of £20,000. The case went to civil trial and the man lost, but after the civil trial the judge referred the apparently fake document to the police. The man pleaded guilty to perverting the course of justice. There was just one document and it was barely legible and crude. He was given 2 years and four months in jail.
So by looking through these examples, it is plain that the offence committed by Mr Webb will inevitably be treated very seriously. There were four letters. The attempted stitch-up went on for many months and included giving evidence under oath in court. The consequence was that Ms Avis was arrested, locked up on various occasions, had to attend at court repeatedly and was eventually given a suspended prison sentence before it was all cleared up. A large amount of police time was wasted. Mr Webb pleaded guilty, albeit very late in the day, and there may be important matters of mitigation for the judge to take into account. Nonetheless, a significant sentence must be inevitable.
So all eyes will be on Bristol Crown Court on the 1 June to see what happens. It is a case that is important not just for Mr Webb and Ms Avis, but also for the wider community and criminal justice system. Just how important is it for witnesses to tell the truth to police and to the court?