Judges free women who refused to testify

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The Independent Online
Two women jailed after refusing to testify against a man accused of assaulting one of them walked free yesterday after the Court of Appeal ruled that it had been an "exceptional case".

Sarah Holt, 20, and Sophie Bird, 22, were sentenced for contempt at Chelmsford Crown Court eight days ago for refusing to testify against the younger woman's ex-boyfriend, Alex Fryatt. They later claimed they had been intimidated and feared reprisals if they gave evidence.

Mr Fryatt, who had been accused of grievous bodily harm with intent and was alleged to have stamped on Ms Holt's face, was acquitted when the prosecution offered no further evidence.

After yesterday's ruling by the Court of Appeal, the two women issued a statement saying the were "delighted" at the verdict. The statement, read by Ms Holt's grandfather, Len Holt, said: "They rather feel that the legal system has let them down but at least they are thankful that the court has today seen fit to correct what they feel was injustice." He said the women were still nervous and frightened and were looking forward to returning to their families and resuming a normal life.

In their ruling, read by Lord Justice Roch, the judges said they had considerable understanding of the decision by the trial judge, Mr Justice Benjamin Pearson, to imprison the women after their refusal to testify at the Chelmsford Crown Court hearing, which had been due to start on 16 September.

Lord Justice Roch said the judge had not been told of claims that Ms Holt - who allegedly suffered a fractured jaw and whose face was "unrecognisable" after the attack - and her friend had been subjected to continuous intimidation before the trial.

The judges pointed out that Ms Holt had not sought legal advice before the hearing last Tuesday which imprisoned her, and criticised the women for failing to disclose their allegations of intimidation to the barrister allocated to them by the trial judge at the sentencing hearing. They "have been foolish in their approach to the legal advice they have been offered", Lord Justice Roch said.

Nevertheless, in what was an exceptional case, there had been a failure to apply Crown Prosecution Service guidelines for domestic-violence cases, which allowed for a delay when key witnesses were frightened to give evidence. There had been no consideration either of allowing written statements to be used instead under Section 23 of the 1988 Criminal Justice Act, which Parliament had intended to help deal with the "growing ruthlessness of criminals and their associates". The judges urged that more use be made of this section in similar cases. They also criticised the trial judge for not adjourning the hearing for a day before deciding the two women had committed contempt.

In quashing the sentences of three months' youth custody for Ms Holt and two months' jail for Ms Bird, the judges recognised they had suffered the "trauma" of imprisonment and "the clang of the prison gates." They substituted sentences of one week each, which effectively allowed them to walk free after eight days in Holloway Prison and, in Ms Holt's case, Drake Hall Open Prison, Staffordshire.

Earlier, their counsel, Alun Jones QC, said the trial judge's sentence had sent the wrong message and could deter witnesses of rape, stalking and violence against children from coming forward for fear they could be jailed themselves.

Quoting Bleak House, he said the message sent out had been "suffer any wrong that can be done to you rather than come here". The public would simply not understand why two women of good character, if lacking in sophistication, had been dealt with in this way. The judge had lacked sensitivity, and, as a result, the two had suffered the "alien" experience of being put in cells. The women, both of Waltham Abbey, Essex, are believed to have sold their story to a newspaper.

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