Is the Woollard Sentence Excessive?

Not necessarily.

The sentence of Woollard for Violent Disorder to 32 months in a Young Offenders’ Institution has come as a surprise to some.  The idea that a man of otherwise good character, who turned himself in and pleaded guilty, viewed as getting caught up in the excitement of the Millbank rioting, could get a significant custodial sentence for a moment of madness seems odd.  There is a suggestion by some lawyers on Twitter that this sentence is appealable for being too harsh.

This view doesn’t appear to have the weight of authority behind it.  The criticisms so far have focused either on the nature of Mr Woollard, or his precise actions.  That is not the gravamen of Violent Disorder.  The offence does not focus on the conduct of one offender, ‘but the nature of the offending as a whole.’  The court has to take into account the wider events of that day, involving substantial criminal damage and injury, and sentence in the light of both that and the public interest in deterring such behaviour in the future.

This is where comparing news articles falls down (and there are plenty of other reasons why it isn’t a worthwhile activity for judging the severity of a sentence).  Many of those now going round Twitter have vastly different circumstances.  The individual violence may have been greater from a specific defendant, but it’s hard to argue that such cases can offer much guidance in relation to an offence in the context of a large demonstration and significant criminal acts by a substantial minority.

The key authority on this particular point is R v Rees and Others [2006] 1 Cr.App.R.(S.) 20.  It is authority for the principle that violent disorder is about the nature of the offending as a whole rather than just the offender.  It is also a useful case to compare to this one.  In it the defendants received sentences ranging from 27 months to 4 and a half years.  The offences were, broadly speaking, sustained acts of criminal damage and violence, including missiles being thrown at police officers.  Several of the defendants were otherwise of good character, like Mr. Woolard.  Though in Rees the defendants were drunk, it is probably not a distinguishing feature but rather a useful comparison for people in high spirits like some of the demonstrators.

Lord Woolf CJ’s judgment in particular is of note.  He describes the events of the day as follows:

The group surrounded a stationary tram and engaged in chants and gestures towards its occupants. They pulled off the wipers and tried to damage the tram. Thereafter, there were attacks on police officers and members of the public. There were indiscriminate acts of criminal damage against various premises over approximately a one hour period. Substantial damage was caused to business premises. Fifteen police officers were injured. A number of police vehicles were damaged. The public were undoubtedly put in fear. Missiles were thrown at police officers. Many of the officers were struck. Shields and batons were issued. Controlled advances were made. The violence continued until about 23.00

The important part, however, is when Woolf comes to discuss the nature of Violent Disorder as an offence:

Offences of violent disorder often involve young men who otherwise have been of exemplary character, like some of the young men who find themselves before this Court on this appeal. The court must have regard to their personal characteristics. However, the court must also have regard to the effect of offences of violent disorder on the public who may be caused real anxiety and distress. A feature of the offence is that it is not the individual conduct of one offender that is of importance, but the nature of the offending as a whole. An individual offender will want to be punished only for precisely what he has done. However, from the point of view of the public it is the collective effect of the violent disorder which is of significance. When it is the habit of young men (and young women) to… behave out of character, it is important that the courts send a message that there are very real dangers… While the courts wish to be sympathetic towards offenders, they must bear in mind the consequences of the offence as a whole on the public. The problem is that when … what starts as an exhibition of high spirits descends into conduct which is criminal.

This Court has been helped by looking at the video-recordings of what occurred on both of these occasions. The evidence against these young men depends upon those videos. It is clear from the videos that on some occasions the young men involved are doing no more than indulging in high spirits. As long as high spirits are controlled, no criminal offence is committed. But there was episode after episode on both occasions when the conduct became criminal. It descended into the sort of conduct which collectively caused great alarm to those who were present. It was conduct which was very difficult for the police to control. It no doubt alarmed and put at risk police officers. These are aspects which this Court must not ignore; nor must any court who is engaged in sentencing in relation to offences of this nature.

I edited out the references to drinking there to emphasise the point.  The above could equally have been said in sentencing Woolard.  The court appears to have viewed his offending in light of the wider rioting that day and decided to send out a message to warn others that there are consequences to a moment of madness that could easily have resulted in someone getting seriously hurt.