Rebecca Gillon, 25, of Alnwick, Northumberland, was jailed on Monday for taking the money from the Market Street branch of Barclays Bank in Basingstoke, Hampshire, where she worked as a clerk on the foreign till. She repaid it before the theft was detected in an audit carried out after she had taken redundancy.
She also admitted a charge of false accounting to cover up a theft and asked for three other false accounting offences to be taken into consideration.
She appeared before Recorder Jeremy Storey at Winchester Crown Court. Despite hearing that Mrs Gillon stole the money in December 1991 and February 1993 to 'keep a roof over her head' after her husband's milk round franchise had failed, he told her: 'The offences are so serious they deserve a prison sentence.'
Yesterday that judgment was overturned by Mr Justice Macpherson and Mr Justice Holland at the Court of Appeal. 'The right course to take, unusually but in mercy to the lady, is to make an order for a conditional discharge,' Mr Justice Macpherson told the court. 'If we are wrong in our approach it is because we err on the side of mercy, bearing in mind that the prison gates shut on her on Monday and she has served half the sentence she probably would have had to have served.'
The circumstances were unusual, he added. The appellant was a pregnant first offender with an excellent character and an unblemished work record. There had been a two- to three-year delay in bringing the case to court and she had repaid the money before its loss was detected.
Mrs Gillon, who has a nine- year-old son, is expecting a baby in October. 'The pregnancy of Mrs Gillon is probably not, in fact, pre- eminent because pregnancy is not a passport to freedom, but obviously very relevant and important when considering her personal position,' he said.
But Mr Justice Macpherson was at pains to emphasise that he did not blame Mr Storey for his decision. 'We understand the Recorder's problems and sympathise with him. Sentencing in cases like this is a difficult art . . . but we believe that this can be said to have been a very exceptional case so imprisonment could, and should, have been avoided. The probation officer believes she would not reoffend, she has lost her current employment and the conviction and the publicity attendant on this case have been punishment in themselves.'
Outside court, Mrs Gillon emerged smiling and holding her stomach. She was engulfed by a media scrum that surrounded her so closely she was unable, at first, to get into a limousine with blacked-out windows provided by the Sun newspaper, which had paid her legal fees.
Her solicitor, David Hawke, said: 'She was very pleased with the result. She was deeply upset by what happened on Monday.'
He added that his client's experience in Holloway Prison, north London, had been 'horrendous'. 'I believe justice has now been done by the back door. The sentence was wrong and I blame the Recorder tremendously - who else is to blame?'
Mr Storey was unavailable for comment.