One newspaper questioned how justice had been served after reporting that convicted sex offender John Worboys was to be released from prison following a decision by the Parole Board.
The headline, one of many similar ones, read:
'Black Cab rapist John Worboys to be freed after eight years – that’s just TWO WEEKS for each of 200 victims'
On the face of it, eight years imprisonment for 200 sexual crimes does appear remarkably lenient, and it is no wonder that members of the public not appraised of the full facts should express outrage on social media and elsewhere.
The facts reveal a very different story.
Was Worboys convicted of 200 offences?
The simple answer to that is no. Worboys was tried in 2009 on an indictment containing 23 allegations. In March 2009 he was convicted of 19 offences, including one charge of rape, the other charges related to sexual assaults and the administration of drugs to his victims. At the time of the offending Worboys worked as a taxi-driver and used that position of trust to take advantage of his victims.
The trial Judge, Mr Justice Penry-Davey sentenced Worboys to Imprisonment for Public Protection' ('IPP), with a minimum term before any possible release of 8 years.
Eight years reflects the sentence he would have received had an IPP sentence not been imposed (more on that below) and is based on a determinate prison sentence equivalent to 16 years (because he would have served half of that 16-year term before release).
So, why is the press reporting that he has committed more offences?
A substantial number of victims of sexual assault have come forward. It is apparent from evidence given at his trial that although 105 victims came forward, and are accepted by the police as having been subjected to assault by Worboys, these may represent only a small proportion of those assaulted.
In the words of prosecuting counsel at the trial:
"As you will see from the time span on the indictment the Defendant was able to cruise the nightclub areas of London identifying and picking up girls upon which to carry out his assaults for some time. Each girl felt concerned at the very least when she awoke the next morning, feeling that something was wrong but many did not make a complaint to the police at the time. It is perhaps easy to see why. Each of them could remember getting into the Defendant's cab. Many could describe the cab driver. Each could remember the conversation in the cab and the offer of alcohol. But many who had consumed that alcohol could remember very little of what had happened thereafter. They could remember little about which to complain. Many spoke to friends and family about the matter but left it there".
Some of these complainants won a civil action against the Metropolitan Police, although that is subject to an appeal, with the Supreme Court expected to give judgment later this year.
The quite horrific extent of police failures to properly investigate Worboys can be read here.
So, although there is a body of evidence to suggest that Worboys committed a very large number of crimes, the simple fact is that he was tried and convicted of only 19.
What about the sentence length?
There are some things to note about the sentence.
The first is that despite the number of convictions (19), some of the allegations (i.e. the drugging) are part and parcel of the main sexual offending. While properly charged separately, the sheer number of offences is not always a good indicator of the length of sentence that might follow.
The most serious offence for which Worboys was convicted was the single count of rape, although that is not to suggest the other offences were in any way insignificant.
Sentencing for sexual offences in 2009 is not the same as it is today.
Beyond any doubt, the treatment of those convicted of serious sexual offences today is very different from even a few years ago.
And finally, an IPP sentence is itself a particularly stringent form of punishment, stripping the offender of the privilege of automatic release, ensuring Parole Board scrutiny before any release, and also leaving the offender under supervision, potentially for life.
But overall, when you look at a sentence equivalent to 16 years, with no automatic release, it does not strike me as lenient, or at least not to any extent that it looks appealable.
Could the sentence have been appealed?
Yes, it could. The Attorney General had the right to refer the sentence to the Court of Appeal, and argue that it was 'unduly lenient'.
We know that the sentence was referred to Baroness Patricia Scotland, the Attorney General at the time. The AGs office issued a statement saying:
“John Worboys’ sentence was considered by the attorney-general at the time. There are sentencing guidelines that judges must adhere to and, in this case, the sentence given fell within the guidelines available for this offence at that time.”
So, the sentence was the correct one?
Yes, the sentence was in accordance with the law. Judges can only sentence offenders for the offences that they have been convicted of.
People may feel in any event that the sentence was lenient, and they may well have a valid point of view. But so far as the law is concerned there appears to be little of concern here.
Why weren't there more charges brought?
The CPS has issued a statement dealing with that point, read it here.
The legal principle of 'totality of sentence' is of importance here and very much explains the thinking of the CPS at the time.
At its simplest, if an offender commits one crime deserving of (say) a three year sentence of imprisonment, and another offender commits (say) 10 crimes each deserving of 3 years imprisonment, the second offender would not receive a sentence of 30 years.
There comes the point when loading the indictment with further offences is largely pointless, and it was not the practice at the time to pursue further prosecutions that could (in some cases) and perhaps should, have been pursued at the time.
It is interesting that despite the stance of the CPS, the police did, in fact, refer at least one further case of sexual assault.
Again, it is worth contrasting the view in 2009 with that now, we have seen in more recent years a much different practice emerge, the case of Rolf Harris is a good example of that, with new allegations being pursued after his initial conviction.
Is there any chance of new criminal allegations being pursued now?
If there is evidence to support any new prosecutions, then I think it highly likely Worboys may face further proceedings.
Why has the Parole Board ordered his release?
The Parole Board is under a statutory duty to consider Worboys release once the minimum term of 8 years has expired.
A release must be ordered unless detention remains necessary for the protection of the public.
So, what we know is that the Parole Board has concluded that Worboys is a manageable risk if released.
It seems a lot of people think so. The Parole Board has however evaluated all of the evidence and thinks differently. Due to secrecy rules passed by parliament, the reasons for the Parole Board's decision cannot be published, so we have no means of evaluating the decision made.
Can the decision be appealed?
The only possible challenge is by way of judicial review - where it could be argued that there was something procedurally wrong with the decision making progress, or that the decision to release was so wrong that it cannot stand (in legal terms often referred to as 'Wednesbury unreasonable').
The courts will, however, be slow to interfere with the expert assessment of the Parole Board, so a successful challenge is not likely.
We know that the victims were not notified of the Parole Board hearing or release decision and no doubt lawyers will be looking at whether that might form a basis for a challenge. It is unlikely in my view.
Who could bring the judicial review?
There is no doubt that the Secretary of State could challenge the decision, and some lawyers suggest that victims could as well, although I am doubtful as to whether victims would have the required 'standing' in law to bring a challenge. However, it is highly likely that this move is being contemplated.
So, he is free then?
He will be later this month unless further charges are brought, and he is remanded in custody (which is unlikely in that very short timeframe).
He will remain under supervision (on licence) for the remainder of his life. He can apply for that licence to be revoked, but given what is known about Worboys that seems unlikely to happen.
So, to sum it up
Worboys is a violent and prolific sexual offender, but the failings, in this case, appear to lie at the door of the Metropolitan Police Service, not the courts and Parole Board.