What public interest was there in prosecuting Supt Robyn Williams for possessing a video she never wanted?

There are times when one utterly despairs of the priorities of our police and prosecution authorities. Earlier this week the crew of an Essex police unit took time off from pursuing dangerous drivers on the M25 in order to flag down a driver for displaying offensive slogan “bollocks to Brexit” on his Mini. According to the police this constituted an offence under S.5 of the Public Order Act 1986 (needless to say they were wrong). After 40 minutes of argument the Remainers agreed to rub out the first three letters, so that the slogan read “locks to Brexit.” Result! Especially, of course, for the dangerous drivers who they didn’t catch while arguing about a public order law they misunderstood.

But this act of petty stupidity pales into insignificance beside the utterly disproportionate investigation and prosecution of Robyn Williams, a Metropolitan Police Superintendent with 36 years of exemplary service, commended for her work on the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, and one of Britain’s most senior black police women. Williams now has a criminal record and was today sentenced to 200 hours unpaid work, ordered to register as a sex offender – which she quite clearly is not – for 5 years and may now lose her job.

Her crime was to “possess” an indecent image of a child. The image in question was a video sent to her by her sister, who was outraged that it was circulating on social media and wanted its maker prosecuted.

There has never been the slightest suggestion that Williams had any wish to possess the video, and the jury acquitted her of the more serious charge of corruptly not reporting it in order to protect her sister. Expert evidence that emerged during the trial – and it should have been established by the prosecution experts before the trial started – made it quite clear that she had not even looked at the video. However, the law is such that unless she could prove that she had “no cause to suspect it to be indecent,” or that she had not kept it on her phone “for an unreasonable length of time” the jury had to convict her of the possession charge. Unfortunately for her, she was unable to prove her innocence. Thus a law designed to catch online paedophiles has instead trapped a pillar of society. “I have no doubt,” said the judge even as he was passing a sentence that meant she will be registered as and treated as a sex offender for the next 5 years, “that you are a thoroughly decent woman.”

Before instigating any prosecution the CPS is meant to consider not just whether there is sufficient evidence for a conviction, but also whether a prosecution is in the public interest. The public interest in pursuing a corruption charge was obvious enough, but once that fell away that should have been an end to it. She should never have faced an additional charge of possessing a video she neither asked for, wanted or even saw. Indeed, the video was sent to 16 other people, none of whom were prosecuted for possessing it. She was singled out.

Of course, as a police officer she should, as she accepted, have reported the matter as soon as she learnt of the possibility that she had been sent an illegal image. But this omission is the only aspect of her behaviour that is open to criticism, and once established that it was not a corrupt omission it was not criminal either. It could and should have been dealt with by internal police disciplinary proceedings, without the need for a 3 week trial at the Old Bailey, the instruction of one of the country’s top QCs to prove an entirely technical offence, and the public shaming of a dedicated public servant.

It is impossible to see what purpose has been served by the conviction or the sentence. A fine police officer has been publicly humiliated, has acquired a criminal record, has been placed, absurdly, on the sex offenders register for 5 years, and for good measure has had her relationship with her sister destroyed. All that money and effort expended to destroy a fundamentally good woman. What a terrible waste. What a terrible error of judgement by the CPS.

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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

63 thoughts on “What public interest was there in prosecuting Supt Robyn Williams for possessing a video she never wanted?”

    1. She may be a pillar of society, although that is far from automatic from modern senior police officers. What is important though is that if bad laws are written they do catch important people, otherwise there won’t be any motivation to change them/not implement crap in the first place.

      You make a good argument against strict liability laws, though I’m not sure if you’ve noticed.

      Incidentally, was the sister charged? If not, why not?

        1. Her sister, who *just happened* to be a social worker.

          The partner was her sister’s partner, rather than her own, I understand. Has the Guardian selectively edited these bits out in order to create faux outrage, as usual?

  1. Matthew – you ask where was the Public Interest in prosecuting this police woman.

    Where was the Public Interest in prosecuting Brian Pead in SIX criminal trials (at great public expense), none of which he was guilty of, including the alleged “attempted incitement of a 14-year-old girl” who didn’t even exist and whom he knew did not exist. That was a charge under s.10 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 when, in fact, the “crime” was allegedly committed under the Common Law which was still operative then. So, Brian Pead was fitted up because he knew too much – perhaps the police woman knew just a bit too much about things “they” didn’t want her to know about.

    And what about the Norfolk farmer, Tony Martin, fitted up for a Murder he couldn’t possibly have committed because the 16-year-old Fred Barras was sighted in Newark at the time Mr Martin fired his gun (and Newark is some 70 miles away from Emneth). Fred Barras was murdered elsewhere and the body MOVED to Mr Martin’s farm to create a Murder Fraud. And 65million people fell into the trap by not questioning the false Police narrative. Mr martin also knew too much about certain criminal activity in Emneth at the time and so he had to be “removed” from Emneth and placed in prison (while the people were conned by the Big Lie and the Police – aided and abetted by a corrupt Chief Prosecutor for Norfolk – hid up a veritable rain forest of evidence until uncovered by investigative author Brian Pead.)

    I do hope that you publish these comments because, although your website is very good in general, you sometimes display a worrying propensity not to publish comments which would shed further light on judicial corruption. Mr Pead acknowledges your website in his Public Meetings on the Murder Fraud in the Tony Martin case. You would do well to contact him but alas, I feel that you will not.

    1. v confusing that Tony Martins defence was self defence/defence of property if Barrass was elsewhere when Martin says he shot him in self defence… unless Martin was 70 miles away as well! or Martin and his legal yeam forgot he had an alibi…

  2. Am I right in thinking that the public interest test is a single-user exit for the CPS? The CPS can use it to justify a non-prosecution. Can any other power, body or person question or overturn their application of the test?

      1. They overturned their decision not to prosecute Lord Janner on public interest grounds under threat of JR, though it was probably more being monstered by the tabloids that was the causal factor there.

        Like the Janner case I suspect that prosecuting Williams was motivated by the fear of the adverse publicity they would get by not prosecuting (“senior cop who admitted possessing kiddie porn not prosecuted”).

        However, as a proviso, bear in mind that there almost certainly was a public interest in prosecuting the more serious offence she was charged with (corruption in public office in shielding her sister when she knew she had committed a crime). It may be that they didn’t give much thought to the lesser charge of which she was ultimately convicted.

  3. We are obviously in the hands of idiots, surely this can be overturned! Only totally irresponsible would deliver this sentance

  4. ‘[B]ecause she wanted to avoid getting her sister in trouble’ (from the Guardian)… I am sorry, but I just don’t think she ever had the discretion required in the first place to be a British police officer. She clearly wanted to be more of a good sister than a good copper.

    In Justice is supposed to be colour blind, then one can’t at the same time freely throw around the card of supposed Institutional Racism.

    1. “[Her sister’s (a social worker)] long-term boyfriend [Dido] Massivi, was convicted of two counts of distributing an indecent photograph of a child, and one count of possessing an extreme pornographic image portraying a person having sex with a horse.”

      Has the Guardian deliberately censored this bit out? So much for ‘Stop Funding Hate’…

  5. I’m confused. The offence was possessing an indecent image (video) of a child – s1 Protection of Children Act 1978. She received a 12 month Community Order. Why is she subject to the Notification Requirements (aka Sex Offenders Register)?

    S1 Protection of Children Act is only a ‘notifiable offence’ under S80 SOA if it results in a sentence of at least 12 months.

    Sexual Offences Act 2003, Part 2, Schedule 3 Paragraph 13(a).

    If that’s the right offence and correct sentence it doesn’t sound like she is subject to a notification requirement. Has the judge made an error (judges don’t usually comment on the notification period as it is automatic and they have no discretion) or has the Guardian journalist mis-understood the law?

    1. The Guardian trying to reinvent themselves as Private Eye 2.0 with Paul Foot still alive… an entirely faux, manufactured outrage.

    2. Thanks for this, but I think in fact the Guardian is correct. The offence is notifiable if:

      “the offender—

      (i) was 18 or over, or

      (ii) is sentenced in respect of the offence to imprisonment for a term of at least 12 months.”

      In other words it’s notifiable either if the offender is over 18, or if the sentence is 12 months or more.

      She was over 18, so it was notifiable. Schedule 3, para 13 (b) (i) applies.

      1. Surely this is (another) case of the law being an ass, but also in support of comment above re crap law not being amended unless and until someone notable is caught.

        Obviously you’re correct in your application of the law – but some other designated offences in the same schedule are treated completely differently by the simple substitution of ‘and’ for ‘or’ (see below).

        It’s well known that the SOA was put together so badly that there was some judicial comment re ‘2003 not being the finest year in the annals of legal drafting’ (viz) but this seems ridiculous. The intent of parliament is decidedly unclear and seemingly arbitrary. Surely grounds for appeal on this alone?

        “An offence under section 51A of the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982 (c.45) (possession of extreme pornography) if—

        (a)the offender—

        (i)was 18 or over, and

        (ii)is or has been sentenced in respect of the offence to imprisonment for a term of more than 12 months, and

        (b)in imposing sentence, the court determines that it is appropriate that Part 2 of this Act should apply in relation to the offender.]

  6. From The Guardian:
    https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/nov/26/police-officer-robyn-williams-sentenced-unpaid-work-possessing-child-abuse-video

    “The Met Black Police Association believes that the internal guidance on this matter allows for any person in innocent possession of any image of this kind to be treated with discretion…”

    But HAD Williams reported the matter it seems safe to suggest that she would NOT have been prosecuted for that ‘innocent possession’ – nor been prosecuted for anything at all.

    The judge said her claims of ignorance were “fanciful”; “the jury had rejected Williams’ account”. It seems to me that this is a surrogate conviction for the “more serious [?] charge of corruptly not reporting” of which she was found not guilty despite neither the judge – nor the jury, according to the judge – believing her: she was protecting her sister but they understood why she might do this, perhaps.

    It’s late & I’m not finding the words, but I suppose what I’d like to know is if it was necessary to include the ‘possession’ charge in order for the charge of ‘corruptly not reporting’ to be made. (Or: could she have been found guilty of the latter without winding up on the sex offenders’ registry?)

  7. The most likely reason this prosecution occurred is that so many others were involved. There would be room for an obvious Conspiracy Theory to be created about the police/CPS covering up for “one of their own”, with judicious “leaks”. It’s also easy to guess that journalists would love the story of a ‘cover-up’. In the febrile state of hysteria created by the authorities since 2012, it is easy to see how that perceived need to be “whiter than white” led to the decision to prosecute. That the main allegation now is that this all happened “because she was black”, is a fitting irony indeed

  8. Well, here’s a thing! A “thoroughly decent woman” police officer prosecuted for picking up on an illegal video. And damage inflicted on the person who alerted her to it. This will surely discourage anyone from coming forward with evidence of this type of misdeed, and will discourage individual police officers from persuing an investigation into it. One might almost think that this result was intentional! One might even imagine that powerful people might have engineered this situation to give better cover for their own misdeeds.

    One might even believe that Epstein didn’t kill himself.

    1. Unless the others were also serving members of the police it seems unlikely they’d have faced a charge of “corrupt or improper exercise of police powers and privileges by a constable”. The colour of her skin is a red herring here: she was ‘singled out’ because she was a copper.

      BBC’s Danny Shaw: “In this case, Prosecution argued Williams must have known image was on her phone because she & her sister (who’d sent it because she was so upset & disgusted) spoke & spent many hours together that weekend. Her sister, whose account varied, said it had been mentioned…”

      That she now finds herself on the sex offenders’ register is patently absurd. But she should have done what two of those 16 did: report it.

  9. If this is true for this to happen in this age shows how racist this country especially those I the legal system. Those white men who actually commit sex offences are allowed to carryon doing so for years and someone who has not committed an act is put on the sex register. If it wasn’t so serious one would think it was a fabrication

    How can they ruin an innocent person’s life. Plain direct racism by the CPS.

  10. We have stupid laws.

    We have stupid policemen.

    We have a stupid CPS.

    So stupid stuff happens.

    Better it happens to the sort of people who write laws, enforce them, and prosecute their violations, than that it happen to the powerless.

  11. Her sister, Jennifer Hodge, who suffers from anxiety and depression, had been outraged the video was circulating on social media and sent it to all 17 people in her WhatsApp contacts list. Williams claimed she was unaware her sister had sent her the video.

  12. I agree it is ridiculous. I’m somewhat surprised that a police officer wouldn’t have realised how overzealous the police and the CPS are in such matters though. Knowing what I know now I would destroy my computer if I accidently came across such an image. I sadly don’t think I would report it for risk of being unfairly convicted. I would have no faith of common sense being used. But unlike this police officer many people have no idea about the lengths some will go to prosecute. People who haven’t come into contact with the criminal justice system have an expectation that they will be treated fairly and reasonably. As such they have no idea what they are up against.
    If this happens to a police officer, with a good defence, who knows how things work. What do you think happens to some ordinary guy in a similar situation, someone who believes justice will prevail? The judge won’t be calling him a decent man, and the media will report a slanted version of events.
    The hysteria over images has meant we’re convicting many people unnecessarily. If there was any justice the CPS and those who instigated the prosecution would be charged with some sort of misuse of power.
    I’m speaking as a guy whose partner was convicted of an online downloading offence, and how it has ruined me financially and mentally. The whole case was an abuse of power, even the evidence they produced contradicted themselves.
    If there’s any good coming from this case it will highlight that we need changes in this law. Ideally it will lead to all of these cases being re-examined to see if they are proportional and inline with a democratic society.

  13. This Police Officer clearly upset a person or persons within the Met, the CPS or established current or ex officers within the borough she served.
    And still not a £&@king word from Cressida Dick. Robyn Williams must be a real threat to Dick otherwise she would have sought to quash this ridiculous case.
    This case is a blueprint text book example of the institutional operation and implementation of racism.
    Why has the CPS not sought prosecutions against all the receivers of this image.

      1. Jury nullification. We do have it here. It’s just when the jury decide to go with “not guilty”, even if they believe the defendant is guilty. And they can ignore the judges direction. It’s a way for juries to stop bad law, you could call it a safeguard. Indeed I believe that juries should be told about the existence of this. Indeed we might as well not have a jury if they feel they have to follow the judges direction, even if they don’t agree with it.

        1. Judge’s directions will a) explain the relevant law and (b) relate it to the alleged facts, as brought out and contested at trial and then say IF you you find such and such a fact is prove, then that relates to X part of the law (eg possession) etc. It is for the jury to decide if the facts are proven and apply the law as explained on this “if … then” basis.
          Judges DO NOT direct juries what the verdict to return.
          Jury nullifaction, also known as returning a perverse verdict, refers to situations where juries ignore the judge’s directions, especially where the law in question is seen as unjust.
          Some people here are suggesting that juries should be told by the judge “Hey,you can also ignore my directions, ignore the law, ignore the evidence you have heard in court”. That would be saying, ignore your duty as jurors so it doesn’t make sense to ask judges to do that.
          I am not saying that there is not a heroic history of jury nullification in certain instances — Ponting is a fanous case — just don’t ask judges to lay this out for the jury.
          For more on the history: https://www.thejusticegap.com/not-only-a-right-but-a-duty-a-history-of-perverse-verdicts/

          1. Probably more a case of judges should make juries aware of this option but can’t be relied upon to do so, rather than judges shouldn’t be doing so or it doesn’t make sense for them to do so though.

          2. I think judges should let the jury know of all the options available to them. Of course, that does not mean they will do, so people should be made aware. There is probably an argument which could be made that verdicts where the jury weren’t made aware of their rights are unfair.

          3. You are of course correct Beverley. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the actual judge that highlights jury nullication, just as long as somone makes the jury aware of the concept. For me there is a difference between the law and justice, and a jury should always be more concerned with justice. But that is just my opinion. The Police and the CPS always have the option to not pursue a case because it’s “not in the public interest”, as such I can think of no reason why a jury should not also make that clear distinction.

            Courts are intimidating places, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some jurors believed they would risk prosecution themselves if they returned a “perverse verdict”. It would be interesting research to find out if juries were aware of “jury nullication”, and if that would have affected their decision. And generally if they felt that they were informed enough about the process. For me it’s about ethics. When you are giving somone the power to negatively change somone life, they should be informed about things like “jury nuliffcation”.

            So I guess I think the duty of the jury is to return a “perverse verdict”, if they are not happy with convicting the person. Just as this piece argues that the police and CPS should not have pursued the case in the first place.

    1. Hi Mark, I’m afraid I can’t find any other comment of yours. There is an automatic spam-checker on the blog (otherwise it woudl be swamped by thousands of spam messages). Now and again it picks up a genuine comment, and after a bit of time is empties the bin, as it were. I do sometimes check in the spam folder, but it looks like I may not have seen your comment. I can only apologise.

  14. I remember a terrible moment in class when I was teaching Criminal Justice Act 1998 ss 160(1) and (2). A student said that a friend had just sent her, the day before and unsolicited, an indecent image of a child, with a comment saying “Look at the awful thing I just received out of the blue”. The student was dumbfounded when she learned that she (and her friend) could be liable for possession of an indecent image of a child. I — and the whole class — urged her to delete it immediately and also from the recycle bin*! Yes, she could probably have satisfied the “unsolicited” part of the defence in s 160(2)(c) “that the photograph or pseudo-photograph was sent to him without any prior request made by him or on his behalf hat he did not keep it for an unreasonable time” — although it’s tough to prove a negative especially on the balance of probabilities, but what counts as “an unreasonable time”?

    At least they learned very vividly the perils of strict liability offences and reverse (legal) burdens!

    *For issues re deleting see R v Porter [2006] 1 Cr. App. R. 25 and R v Leonard [2012] 2 Cr. App. R. 12.

  15. I used to deal a lot in second hard drives…..what do you reckon the rough % of them that I get in containing illegal sex stuff? Mostly beastiality videos and child sex videos…..it’s roughly 12-15%, would you believe? Hard to believe people are that stupid….

    I just factory formatted them and sold them on…..had to stop trading in the end as I figured they may well be setting me up!

    But yep for a while there I was in ‘possession’…….so why will they still not prosecute me? Desperate for a Court date by any means necessary……

      1. i don’t think hard drives are illegal, yet! 😉 impossible to know these days…but it’s the content that was illegal and more seriously an actual crime…..and yep pretty high, which was why i thought i was being set up…………..so had to stop 🙁 Very hard to make money without any papers you know and that was my only source of income….so i guess they thought mission accomplished from their perspective…..i.e. your side!

  16. I recall a case of a gentleman receiving an indecent image from an online acquaintance, reporting it to the police, only to have his computer, laptop and mobile seized and him put through nine months of unpleasantness as he waited to hear whether he would be prosecuted. In the end, no charges were brought against the gentleman himself. The police defended their actions on the grounds of the man having admitted to possession of an indecent image.

    That case, and the Robyn Williams case, can only serve to reinforce in people’s minds that reporting questionable material just isn’t worth the stress and disruption it will inevitably bring. Which will inevitably mean that producers and distributors of indecent images, including people who may be abusing children themselves, will be less likely to get caught, with all the consequences that entails.

    1. you hear about the guy who found a gun with ammo in the street? he handed it into the poolice, automatic five year prison sentence, doubt a jury was even involved…..

      1. I hadn’t, but the Firearms Act does allow for the mandatory minimum sentence not to be imposed in exceptional circumstances. If the facts were as you say, that should certainly apply.

        1. well it was mainstream telly news 6-7 years back now i think, hard to recall passage of time in my situation….but i think pigyob justification was he waited a few days summoning up the courage…..but with no warrants required now they can do whatever they like….and stealing somebody’s computers for 9 months or more totally destroys their business and whole life as well…..

          I repeatedly reported pedos, attempts on my life few gang rapes etc….the violence against me just increased, stole my identity and locked me in mental prison for 6 months where the worst abuse happened….coming up 14 years ago now…still under the threat if i continue campaigning….and still can’t do anything, work etc. as you can not even get a bank account with no papers….I would have preferred to be one of the many who get murders by these deranged psychopaths…but it is the side you choose to be one at the end of the day, JE law a bitch innit?

          and this one is a traitor to her colour as well so i find it very hard to have any sympathy for any of them

        2. There was a gun amnesty a couple of years ago. I was in a police station when I saw a little old lady try to hand in a gun. She was told that they didn’t accept them there, and he suggested a different police station. It sounded like she’d have to wait until after the weekend, as the other station was too far away. Seemed bizarre that the police officer sent her away, probably to do her weekly shop with a gun in her handbag.

  17. Much as I love to see pigs squirm, having read up on this case I think it should have been thrown out. Certainly no one should ever be prosecuted for possession one indecent image anyone than he should be prosecuted for possession one dodgy £50.

    This correspondence
    https://www.infotextmanuscripts.org/click-here-to-become-a-paedophile.html
    dates from 2003. Don’t be put off by the title, there are no images on the page. I would have thought the law would have been sorted by now. Apparently not.

  18. Clearly the decision to prosecute was not in the public interest but equally clearly that is not the root of the problem. The problem is a very bad law which makes simple possession of an image without the requirment of an intent to posses it, knowledge that it was possessed, or ever having viewed it is a serious, life changing offence. I am sure that the unfortunate superintendent is not the first person to have their life damaged by prosecution under this law without their being the slightest evidence of any intent to possess such images. A bad law and the medias willingness to exagerrate and distort anything, paticularily anything salacious is what caused this injustice. The police and CPS were understandably terrified of accusations of a cover up of police misbehaviour and therefore prosecuted to cover themselves almost despite the circumstaces as a senior police officer was involved.

    The idea she has been harshly treated because of race is completely wrong. Her treatment in the media is undoubtedly better because of her race and sex. If she had been a male officer then the headlines would probably be that a policeman had been convicted of possessing indecent image sof children with no explanation of the circumtances.

    The law should be changed but I am not holding my breath for an MP to suggest publically that new defences posession of child sex images should be introduced, let alone for changes to be introduced in parliment.

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