Mark Webb’s sentence for perverting the course of justice was richly deserved and possibly too short

A man that beareth false witness against his neighbour is a maul, and a sword, and a sharp arrow. Proverbs 25:18

HHJ Hart’s sentence of 15 months imprisonment which he gave today to Mark Webb for perverting the course of justice deserves wide publicity, even though to my mind it is too short.

For reasons that are far from clear, Mr Webb took it upon himself to complain repeatedly and falsely about his neighbour, a blameless and rather vulnerable former Health Care Assistant called Frances Avis.

Avis’s flat in Brook Road, Bath, was managed (like most of the social housing in the city) by a company called Curo – the same company, incidentally, that is running a crazy campaign for a cable car service from the centre of Bath to one of its new estates). Mark Webb and his wife Susan lived in a flat next door.

Their paths crossed with unfortunate consequences.

Frances Avis

One day Ms Avis was doing some stretching exercises outside her front door. She was in training to run a half-marathon to raise funds for DHI, a charity that helps people recovering from alcohol and drug problems. She spoke to her neighbour for the first time and, because she is a dog lover and because Mr Webb’s newly acquired Jack Russell, Patch, didn’t seem to be getting much exercise, she offered to take him out when she went running. They got on, and soon she was walking Patch regularly.

But then things began to turn rather weird.

Webb started to accuse Frances of trying to steal his dog. It was a ridiculous allegation, but their relations quickly cooled. One day, while they were talking, she pushed him on the shoulder. She is a small woman and the push was utterly insignificant. Nevertherless, Mr Webb – a man who knew his rights – complained to the police that she had assaulted him.

His complaint initiated her descent into a nightmare. The case went to court with Ms Avis charged with asssault. There was no evidence of any injury but the magistrates convicted her of common assault, which does not require any such evidence. In many cases it is a relatively trivial conviction with a light punishment. It turned out to be very different here. By now Mr Webb was also accusing her of harassing him, and the magistrates decided to impose a restraining order, meaning that she had to keep away from Mr Webb and, crucially, not contact him in any way, or she would be committing a separate criminal offence.

It did not satisfy Mr Webb. He claimed that the “harassment” was still continuing. One evening she was sitting at home watching Coronation Street when the police burst in. She was arrested for making threats to kill Webb and his wife. That is a very serious offence indeed. The maximum sentence is 10 years imprisonment, although it can also be tried by magistrates.

The allegation turned out to be that she had written, or got others to write, 19 letters to the Webbs some of them threatening them with death. One of the letters contained some crudely drawn pictures of graves marked “Mark” and “Suzie” and the letters RIP. As it happens, Frances is an accomplished amateur artist and, as she puts it:

If I’d drawn it, it wouldn’t have been as bad as that.”

Others contained threats to burn his house down.

In addition, Mr Webb claimed that she had damaged his Jaguar and shouted threats to him in the street.

In fact Webb had written the letters himself in a bizarre and initially highly successful attempt to frame his neighbour.

The CPS were unconvinced by her protestations of innocence. Nobody saw fit to instruct an expert to look at the letters. These things are often not investigated in much detail in Magistrates courts. She was charged with breaching the restraining order, and spent a couple of nights on remand in prison before getting bail. The sting in the tail was that her bail conditions required her to stay away from her flat.

She was now facing charges that could result in a lengthy gaol sentence, and even before she was convicted she had been driven out of her home. That, quite possibly, is what Webb had been hoping to achieve. With nowhere to live, she was forced to rely on friends’ sofas and charities. For a time a “dry house” offered her a place, but then she breached the rules by drinking, an entirely understandable lapse given the appalling situation into which Webb’s lies had pitched her. Sometimes she slept in skips, being woken by builders in the morning.

Finally, after many months, the case came up for trial at the Bath Magistrates Court. Surely the Magistrates would see through Webb’s lies and vindicate Ms Avis.

They did not. Webb was mollycoddled through the case. He was a classified as a “vulnerable” witness. He said he was nervous and asked for, and was granted, permission to give his evidence – the essential core of which consisted of bare-faced lies – from behind a curtain. Eventually it became too much for Frances. She swore at him, or at least at the curtain, as he gave his evidence. As her experienced solicitor Charles Cronin observed, it was not the sort behaviour to endear her to the bench, and in fact it almost led to her facing a charge of perverting the course of justice.

It was in fact a doomed attempt to pervert the course of an injustice; and of course it failed. You don’t usually persuade courts by shouting and swearing. The Magistrates accepted Webb’s evidence and rejected Frances’s explanation – why should they accept the word of a homeless woman with a drink problem against a “vulnerable” man with no obvious motive to lie? He remained in court, no longer, it would seem, afraid of seeing her, to hear the magistrates pronounce Frances guilty. When they did so “he stood up,” she recalls, “all proud.”

Frances on the other hand, was so shocked by the injustice that she vomited in the dock. Worse still, she was so upset by the verdict that she forgot to pick up her beloved trilby and it was left in the dock, never to be seen again.

As is customary, sentencing was adjourned for a few weeks to give the Probation Service time to write a report.

In the meantime, and very slowly at first, doubts began to appear about Mr Webb. He had made the classic mistake of the dishonest witness: he was too greedy and too complacent. He had completed a police claim-form for compensation against Ms Avis – though beyond her trilby it is hard to see how he could have thought she could afford to give him anything at all. The Officer in charge of the case was an experienced Constable PC Adrian “Adge” Secker, who had, of course, had a chance to see the 19 “threatening” letters. He was struck by the similarity in Webb’s writing on the compensation form and that on some of the letters supposedly sent by or on behalf of Ms Avis. Very properly he drew this to the attention of the CPS, who were persuaded finally to instruct a handwriting expert. It was starting to look likely that the magistrates had been hoodwinked.

But Ms Avis’s ordeal was still not over. Weeks and then months passed with no word from the handwriting expert. Eventually, despite the protestations of Mr Cronin, the magistrates lost patience and decided to pass sentence anyway. By now even the police were starting to doubt whether she was really guilty, and this may have been a factor in the Magistrates deciding to suspend the 24 week prison sentence that they imposed, together with a financial penalty of £1900. This was, in itself, a huge punishment for a woman who was by now facing demands for rent arrears from her landlord, even though for long periods of time her bail conditions had prevented her from going into Brook Street at all.

Finally, the handwriting expert pronounced his opinion: the letters he examined appeared to have been written by Webb, in a bizarre stitch-up prompted, at least in part, by sheer greed.

Ms Avis was able to appeal to the Crown Court, and because of the handwriting evidence the CPS did not oppose her application to have the convictions quashed.

PC Secker – against whom Avis will not hear a bad word – now turned the tables on Webb. He was arrested and charged with perverting the course of justice. Finally, in April of this year, over two years after the whole saga began, Ms Avis was summoned to attend Bristol Crown Court as the chief prosecution witness against her former accuser and tormentor. He had wriggled for months, refusing to accept that he had done anything wrong, but faced with the cool analysis of the hand-writing expert and the implacable determination of Ms Avis to see justice he admitted his guilt just before she was due to go into the witness box.

Any justice system stands or falls by its ability to weed out the guilty from the innocent. Members of the English legal profession are sometimes rather complacent about how ours does it. No doubt some will see in the case a vindication of the system. After all, it got the right result in the end.

Unfortunately Ms Avis’s case is almost certainly not typical. Far more often, one suspects, false accusers get away with it.

Mr Webb was a man with very little obvious motive to lie. Who on earth, after all, would imagine that anyone would construct a series of false allegations, with supporting evidence, against a harmless neighbour, because of jealousy over a Jack Russell?

What would have happened if Webb had not been stupid enough, and greedy enough, to fill out police compensation forms in the same hand used to write the self-addressed poison-pen letters?

What would have happened if the Police officer involved had not been astute, conscientious and honest? Ms Avis was fortunate, and Mr Webb unfortunate, that PC Secker was all those things.

English and Welsh law does not demand that any witness is corroborated (Scottish law is somewhat different). It assumes, as appeal court judges are heard to say time and time again, that “seeing and hearing the witnesses” gives the judge and jury a particular advantage. The assumption running through the system is that out of the clatter and clash of cross-examination the truth will somehow emerge. Sometimes, it is true, it does. Sometimes some incontrovertible piece of evidence will emerge, or a witness will become so entangled in his or her lies that their dishonesty is plain for all to see, or at least suspected strongly enough to make the court uneasy. The problem is that without something of that sort a dishonest witness may well be believed.

Humans are not very good at detecting liars. Analysis of a series of studies suggests that people can spot a lie on average 54% of times, a success rate only slightly better than tossing a coin, although there is some reason to suppose that groups (like juries) are a little more accurate. But the belief that you can look at body language or “demeanour” to reveal dishonesty is widespread, wrong and very dangerous. People who think they can infallibly use such clues to spot a liar are of course far more dangerous than people who realise they can’t.

Defendants are apt to say “there is no evidence, how can I be convicted?” when what they mean is “there is no evidence other than the word of X.” What many people don’t realise is that the word of X is evidence, and what’s more that it is quite enough on its own to convict, even when it is uncorroborated and flatly contradicted by the word of Y, or indeed by A, B & C as well. Very often cases boil down to “one person’s word against another’s.” When they do, magistrates and juries run a very serious risk of believing the wrong person.

The wrongly convicted are all too often treated as acceptable collateral damage in a war on crime. Since 1984 seemingly endless changes in the laws of evidence and procedure have been designed, almost without exception, to increase conviction rates and almost nothing has been done to protect people who are wrongly accused.  Frances Avis was not a “VIP” or a celebrity.  She had no money to pay for swanky QCs or private investigators. She was an ordinary, and not especially articulate person caught up in a nightmare after her path crossed a dishonest man.  Her vindication, similarly, came about almost by chance.

As for Mr Webb, does he have any explanation or apology? He does not. As his counsel put it in mitigation:

I asked him what he now thought about it and he said it was stupid. I asked him about the effect upon her and he said ‘I don’t know but I only did it for what she did to me’.

I cannot put forward remorse when it doesn’t exist. He is a man who does not process well and acts impulsively.”

I don’t have a complete answer, but the sad case of Frances Avis ought to remind everyone both of how easy it is for courts to make mistakes and of how pernicious and damaging false allegations can be.

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Author: Matthew

I have been a barrister for over 25 years, specialising in crime. You may also have come across some of my articles I have written on legal issues for The Times, Standpoint, Daily Telegraph or Criminal Law & Justice Weekly

26 thoughts on “Mark Webb’s sentence for perverting the course of justice was richly deserved and possibly too short”

  1. Outrageous. Will this poor lady get any compensation? If not, is there a fund that I can make a small contribution to (I am that sad thing – a pensioner – so I don’t have recourse to large amounts of money).

  2. From the Bath Chronicle, reporting live on-line

    “The prosecution reveal that the effect on Ms Avis has been ‘profound’.”

    I wish judges/magistrates were more aware that their carelessness and getting it wrong – emboldening a man with a psychotic obsession – is cataclysmic for the wronged person. The administration of justice should not have been only just saved by one alert police officer. Are the magistrates going to be censured, ordered perhaps to spend two nights in a skip?

  3. “Mr Webb was a man with very little obvious motive to lie. Who on earth, after all, would imagine that anyone would construct a series of false allegations, with supporting evidence, against a harmless neighbour……..”

    But, equally, why would the neighbour attack him in the first place and then lie that she didn’t.

    Or a date “rapist” for that matter.

    There needs to be an urgent review of all these changes in the rules of “evidence”.

  4. As someone who has lived these past 3 decades with a violent paranoid psychotic wife, much given to such ‘accusations’ in her more energetic unmedicated youth, I wonder if Webb had a history of mental health issues and if so, why this wasn’t checked from the start?
    And IF Webb is mentally unwell (as your account suggests) then perhaps that is the reason for the more lenient sentence?

  5. Great blog, though very troubling to think that something as basic as handwriting wouldn’t be checked. Thank God Webb (and what a twisted individual he turned out to be) hadn’t used a printer (or a friend) to produce the notes.
    My heart goes out to Ms Avis. If you’re reading this, Frances, my best wishes for your future.

  6. Our culture is also to blame for magistrates/judges not following the evidence, questioning rigorously and throughly examining differences or inconsistencies in the evidence. We jump to conclusions (prejudice) about the worth of people, without digging deeper. Monsters, the ugly and the outcast are always the villains, the number of times I’ve had to battle prejudice against me when the evidence overwhelmingly supports my testimony.

    Shrek, the series of films exposes that lie and turns that supposition on its head. Sometimes the monstrous looking people are usually the ones telling the truth because they have spent their lives not being believed and are on their guard to be absolutely honest.

    Whereas the cute, who we all want to like and want them to like us, can lie with impunity and, we cannot see it or we forgive their misspeak, because we need to be loved by the pretty people.

    The trouble is that most people watch Shrek and do not understand its message.

    I’ve heard juries convict because the aura being given off by the defendant.

    It may be an old film, but before anyone enters a jury room (and magistrates and judges should be forced to do so as well) they should all watch A Few Good Men.

    The programme on channel 5 (I think it was) recently did not help. The jury decided the guy, the estranged husband, could not be convicted on the evidence (well done). But, the film was then allowed to run to expose the murderer, who they had just let off for want of evidence, the husband. That gives people the impression that a murderer has just got away with his crime. Any watcher doing jury service will remember this programme and will feel inclined to convict.

    The programme makers missed a trick. They should have then run an equally plausible finish, showing the boyfriend committing the murder.

    The right message would have been sent, and the innocent might in future have not been so often wronged. As it was, the makers of the programme will certainly achieve the opposite. Because of their need for excitement and certainty, the innocent will more often be branded the guilty.

    (I’ve just noticed, your last post was The Trial, of the husband).

  7. Thanks, Matthew. Another valuable item. How come I didn’t notice it in the newspapers?

    From your account, Mr Webb’s behaviour was absolutely crazy. His craziness caused him to commit a crime. Should he not be treated as criminally insane?

  8. Will the investigating officers, CPS solicitors, prosecuting council or the magistrates who convicted her face any meaningful sanction (or any sanction at all)? It seems to me the power of the state may be used a little less freely if people were worried they be held accountable if they got things wrong?

  9. I am glad he pleaded, because I agree with Mr Justice Harman who said:

    I would not hang a dog on the evidence of a handwriting expert – and I hate dogs!

    Theirs is voodoo science.

  10. Having suffered a very similar experience I will only say the level of evidence to which the police/CPS/magistrates use to arrest/charge and convict people in such cases “beyond reasonable doubt” is scandalous. It’s my view the Magistrates courts simply exist to rubber stamp CPS prosecutions and any hope of justice begins with a proper judge in a Crown Court (who i hope would’ve questioned the validity of the disputed letters in Ms Avis’s case, and why Webb waited until receiving the 19th letter before going to the police?).

    Thanks for the enlightening blog Matthew. Hopefully one day a PC Secker will enter my life and you will write a blog about a person who makes Mark Webb look like a litter dropper.

  11. What this case shows Matthew, as the SAFF has long maintained, and thank you for the supportive statistics to prove it, is that ALL courts are a lottery with a 50-50 chance of being found guilty or not guilty REGARDLESS of the evidence presented. Only in cut and dried cases where the evidence is clear (and even some of those the outcome can be dicey).

    We liken the British Justice system to a firing squad. The military gets 12 soldiers to shoot the condemned man simultaneously. To avoid the stress of guilt one of the 12 ‘volunteer’ shooters is given a blank cartridge, thus after the event each can console himself that he might have been the one who didn’t actually shoot the condemned man dead after all and is therefore not really responsible for killing one of their comrades.

    A jury is little different, particularly now that majority verdicts are deemed acceptable. They do not collectively surpass the will of the State, they are a function of it.

    Often the attitude of judges is so disinterested, probably prompted by the tacit acknowledgment from years at the bench that there is no such thing as Justice, that they quickly expedite a case regardless of the minutiae because their function is as a state apparatus for ‘justice to be seen to be done’ rather than to dispense Justice. They are so disinterested and truth so philosophically convoluted that they give up on it and care little whether they send an innocent person to jail.

    This has its parallels with politicians. Seasoned politicians know that there is no solution to the human condition but they are always first in the queue trying to sell voters one and continue to pretend that current favourable economic conditions are a result of their ministrations instead of the truth; which is that all history is a result of accident.

    This spectacularly unjust case should be better known but, in order to protect their nice little goings on, the Justice system and all those who benefit from it will bury it quickly. Kudos therefore to Matthew for having the principles to highlight the many failings in it which illustrate multanimous areas where British Justice needs transforming if it is not to lose the confidence of the People.

    Tony Rhodes
    SAFF
    http://saff.nfshost.com

  12. I like the fact that it was just an ordinary bobby who saw through this in the end. I’ve an idea – let’s demand that the cops stop automatically believing the ‘victim’ until they can make an informed guess as to who, the actual victim really is, in these – he says/she/he says, cases.

  13. If no corroboration is required, then ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ is not applied. It becomes ‘balance of probability’, in other words the courts toss a coin.

  14. Sickening. If the lady needs a civil barrister to even up the score in the county court, then I will certainly be pleased to assist and am pretty sure I will find some solicitors to come on board too.

    1. Matthew, I wonder if there has been any comparative analysis done on the extent of cases of miscarriage of justice in Scotland as compared with England and Wales in light of the application of a rule requiring corroboration in the former but not latter? Would be worth perhaps talking with the Scots criminal bar and some of the top Scottish criminologists at Edinburgh, Glasgow and Strathclyde Universities on this subject. If there has been no substantial recent research on this issue (I am not aware of any) its the sort of project that would usually gain the support of a research council grant. I think that the key issues here would be the extent to which the rule of corroboration in criminal cases stops potentially miscarriage cases from ever being brought, and then the question of the extent to which other ‘credible’ criminal cases could not be brought because of the lack of corroborative evidence (although one would have to take in account the effect of the police and prosecutors not making such an effort to obtain corroborative evidence as they did not need it to bring the case).

      1. Yes, I agree it would be interesting. My (admittedly limited) understanding of The Scots corroboration rule is that it is not all that onerous. On the other hand I think it has resulted in fewer historic prosecutions in Scotland, one of the main arguments, in fact, used in support of its abolition!

  15. Anyone who makes a false allegation should be prosecuted ! My people have been wrongly convicted by the lies of others. The jury are not given the full facts! I know that all too well. All the CPS are concerned about is gaining a conviction to hit govt targets. To make it look that the police/CPS are doing their job. Ironic that my OH has been interviewed by the IPCC after his conviction following flawed police investigation. Log everything !

  16. I had a friend who defended at the Scottish criminal bar for several years. He said that in all that time he defended only one chap who might not have committed the crime. The man was a career criminal, was admittedly present at the fight, but may have been an onlooker rather than a participant. My friend suspected that his arrest might have been a case of mistaken identity.

    In the end my friend was so disenchanted with earning his living by defending an endless series of guilty men that he decide to follow a different career.

      1. I suspect that pre-trial screening in Scotland, by the Fiscal, was much more effective than in England. I gather that the English attempt to mimic the Fiscal system is a flop – that is to say, the Crown Prosecution Service is held in pretty low esteem. Is that right?

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