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.
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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Postscript July 2021