Examining the mitigation arguments and sentencing in the case of R -v- Pryce & Huhne

Following on from my previous posts on the marital coercion case involving former Liberal Democrat MP Chris Huhne and his ex-wife Vicky Pryce today marked the sentencing hearing for the two defendants after being found guilty of Perverting the Course of Justice last week.

Today’s hearing at Southwark Crown Court began by hearing from the representative for the Crown, Andrew Edis QC, who for what must have been the umpteenth time, told the court as to the events that transpired on 12th March 2003 when Chris Huhne’s BMW was caught speeding. After outlining the facts of the case, including family text messages, that led to the guilty verdict last week, and the guidelines for sentencing, the court heard the Crown Prosecution Service’s costs of prosecuting Huhne totalled £79,014. While the CPS costs for prosecuting Pryce totalled £38,544, which the CPS believe both defendants should pay for. In summing up costs, Edis for the CPS says of Huhne: “The conduct of his defence could properly be described as scandalous.”

Next mitigation began for the two defendants. The ability to mitigate plausibly is as great a skill in a defence barrister as knowing the law and examining witnesses in an actual trial. The purpose of mitigation is to persuade the trial judge that what you contend for is not only plausible but also most suitable in terms of sentencing, as well as to maximise the chances of a successful appeal on the given sentence if the judge decided to ignore the points made to them. Letters were presented to the court of the defendants’ previous good character, and that they had never previously offended, and that the offence itself was out of character for those that were involved.

Julian Knowles QC, for Pryce, appealed to Mr Justice Sweeney for a suspended sentence for Pryce due to “specific and unique” circumstances. Arguing that Pryce’s offence is “towards the lower end of culpability” as it was done for a family member with no reward for herself. She was also pressured, he argues, even if that was not deemed to amount to marital coercion under the law. He went on to say that Pryce “accepts that it was something she should never have done. This is something Miss Pryce would not have done but for the actions of her husband,” Knowles argued.

John Kelsey-Fry QC for Huhne advised the court that his client accepted he only has himself to blame. “They were his points. It was his idea.” However, he did not force Pryce to do so as the jury confirmed in their judgment last week. Mr Justice Sweeney agreed with this believing that Pryce didn’t need much persuasion to accept the speeding points. Kelsey-Fry QC went on to say that Huhne should have immediately accepted guilt and his client is very sorry for not doing so. The Judge interceded at this point and said that it could just as easily be argue that Huhne merely faced up to the inevitable reality after his application to strike out the case had failed. Was this for Huhne, Sweeney says, “a noble taking of stock or a commercial taking of stock?”

Finally delivering his ruling Mr Justice Sweeney decided that both had decided to lie about this offence and were “acting together” in deciding to pervert course of justice. “No doubt you thought that you would get away with it”, said the judge. Of Huhne, Mr Justice Sweeney said that while he had used his high office to try to get the case kicked out of court his attempt to “lie and manipulate the court” would not add to sentence as he had decided to plead guilty. His guilty plea would therefore receive a 10% reduction in his sentence. The judge says that the offence “was your idea” and he was thus slightly more culpable than Pryce. Huhne was sentenced to 8 months in prison at Wandsworth Prison.

Mr Justice Sweeney said on Pryce that she “sought to manipulate and control the press so as to achieve your dual objective” of bringing down Huhne and not implicating herself. He referred to Pryce as having a “controlling, manipulative and devious side to [her] character” taking into consideration that she recorded her conversations with her ex-husband and attempted to get at him through the media without implicating herself. Mr Justice Sweeney handed down an 8 month sentence on Pryce.

Mr Justice Sweeney’s full remarks on sentencing can be found here. He said that the sentences must be used as a deterrent against any such further attempts to pervert the course of justice by other members of the public in a similar way. While it would appear that the matching sentences suggest an equal amount of culpability on behalf of the two defendants one should not forget that Chris Huhne was afforded a 10% reduction due to his guilty plea early on. If he, like Pryce, had taken his case to trial then he would now likely be facing a more lengthy term behind bars. Perverting the Course of Justice is a serious offence and that has clearly been reflected in the sentencing handed out today at Southwark Crown Court.

However, this legal saga is not yet over as both parties, or at the very least their lawyers, will be coming back to court at a date to be determined in order to argue at a costs hearing to see who will be paying the cost to the tax payer for prosecuting this matter in the first place. Furthermore, debate still surrounds whether or not the defence of marital coercion remains a valid defence in 21st Century Britain.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the writer and this article does not constitute legal advice.

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