Many thanks to commenter Exiled Scouser for pointing us in the direction of BAILII, where the full written judgment from Sabine McNeill’s appeal has now been posted.
The judgment itself contains few surprises, and deviates little from our report on 30 July. It does make some minor factual errors—rather than identifying the two children in the original Hampstead videos as a girl and a boy, it identifies them as two girls, and it seems to imply that the children were taken into protective custody as a result of the allegations they made, not as a result of the physical abuse they suffered at the hands of their mother’s then-boyfriend.
However, the judgment is valuable in that it does offer some insight into the thinking of the appellate judges, and further clarification of Sabine’s sentence itself.
The appeal was heard by Lord Justice Leggatt, Mr Justice William Davis, and HHJ Michael Chambers QC, sitting as a judge of the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division). Mr Tom Stevens, who represented Rupert Quaintance at his 2017 trial, appeared on Sabine’s behalf, while the Crown was represented by Mr Philip Stott.
The judgment lays out the background to the charges against Sabine:
The offences involved a relentless campaign of intimidation and harassment committed by the appellant over a period of more than three years which has caused incalculable harm. It began after she offered her services as a McKenzie Friend, that is somebody who assists a person involved in litigation, to a woman whom we will refer to as Ms D in family proceedings in the High Court. Ms D was separated from her partner Mr D and, together with her new boyfriend, Abraham Christie, set about ensuring that Mr D would not see his two daughters*. To that end, she and Christie concocted lies of a revolting kind which they forced the children to repeat in video interviews recorded by Christie. Those lies included the false and malicious allegations that Mr D was the head of a satanic cult operating in Hampstead. The cult allegedly imported babies for ritual slaughter, and cooked and ate babies, and sexually abused not just the D children but many other children at their school in Hampstead. Other parents, teachers, police and social workers were named as being members of the cult. The allegations were of murder, cannibalism, satanism and sexual abuse. As the judge observed in sentencing the appellant, they could not have been more serious or vile.*Erratum: It was a daughter and a son.
We should point out that contrary to the recent assertions of several hoax-supporting individuals, the judgment adheres to the order, put in place in December 2017, which prohibits the naming of protected witnesses in relation to this case. We don’t like to say we told you so, but…oh, hell, yes we do.
We told you so.
The judgment notes that Sabine, acting in the privileged capacity of McKenzie friend to the mother, uploaded (or caused to be uploaded) material from the Family Court case, including the videos of the two children.
In her judgment, Pauffley J found that the only person who had in fact abused the children was the mother’s boyfriend Christie in collaboration with their mother. The children had been subjected to ill-treatment that amounted, as Pauffley J found, to torture. The stories they had been made to tell were completely false and all the material which had been published on the internet was, in the judge’s words, “nothing other than utter nonsense”. In a long judgment, Pauffley J set out in detail the history of the matter and the reasons for her findings. The appellant, of course, read that judgment.
Unfortunately, that was not the end of her involvement in peddling those false and pernicious allegations. In fact it was scarcely the beginning. Over the following months and years she continued to propagate online the allegations which Pauffley J had found to be false and baseless. She did so exploiting her considerable skills as a systems analyst and web publisher.
A particularly insidious feature of McNeill’s conduct was the publication online of the personal details of the parents of other children at the school attended by Ms D’s [children] who were falsely and maliciously accused of having taken part in sexual and satanic abuse, said also to involve their own children. Their names, addresses, telephone numbers, email addresses, pictures of their children – all that and more was disseminated.
As we know, each of the four stalking charges against Sabine pertained to a family she had targeted, persecuted herself, and caused to be persecuted by others. These families were victimised by paedophiles who were attracted by the stories that their children “loved sex” and were available to be abused. They were also targeted by malicious and intimidating phone calls and emails at all hours of the day and night.
And of course there was Rupert Quaintance, whose harassment merited a trial which culminated in a prison sentence and deportation.
Sabine’s appeal judgment emphasises that she was given ample warning on multiple occasions that her actions would lead to imprisonment:
The warnings which the appellant chose to ignore included these. In January 2016 she was interviewed by the police and told them that she had taken down a website called “whistleblowerkids” on which material had been published a few days earlier. The fact that she said that to the police demonstrated that she was well aware of the consequences of her actions. During the interview the police spelt out their concerns. It subsequently emerged that the appellant either never took down the website or almost immediately put it back up again.
In July 2016 the appellant appeared in the Crown Court on a charge of intimidating witnesses. She was acquitted on legal grounds but the judge was nevertheless so concerned that he made a restraining order to prevent, as he put it, “further appalling harassment”. The appellant almost immediately breached that order. She was prosecuted for that breach, to which she pleaded guilty on 17 October 2016. The judge on that occasion gave her a conditional discharge but warned her that if she committed any further breach of the restraining order she could expect a custodial sentence.
That warning made not a blind bit of difference to the appellant. On 25 October 2016, only eight days later, she breached the restraining order again. That was the subject of count 5 on the indictment on which she was convicted. The appellant was interviewed by the police for that breach on 4 November 2016. They explained to her then the effect that she was having on the families she was hounding. They read to her a statement made by one of those victims, describing the devastation that she had inflicted on that family. The appellant was evidently entirely unmoved. She carried on with her campaign. Counts 6, 8 and 10 of which she was convicted involved further breaches of the restraining order around New Year of 2017 and then in April and October of that year.
The last two offences of which she was convicted (counts 20 and 21) were committed in February 2018. By this time the appellant had been remanded on bail and, as a condition of her bail, had had to surrender all internet enabled devices. But so determined was she to carry on her criminal campaign that she adopted a new form of harassment. She handed out leaflets at the General Synod of the Church of England, making scurrilous and, as always, baseless allegations against members of the clergy and in particular the Vicar of Christchurch in Hampstead. He is someone who as a result of the appellant’s campaign has had to have police protection. That was count 20. Count 21 involved making a telephone call to a Christian charity in order to publicise her false and malicious allegations of sexual and satanic abuse.
We are bound to observe at this point that the facts of this case, of which we have given only the barest summary, amply justified the judge’s comment that “this case has to be one of the most serious cases of stalking in breach of a restraining order that there can be.”
Having established the gravity of Sabine’s offences, the appellate judges note that in her sentencing, HHJ Cahill followed the Sentencing Council’s guidelines for intimidatory offences. She assessed Sabine’s culpability as “very high”, since she had intended to cause as much fear and distress as possible, she had continued her campaign over a prolonged period, and she had shown a high degree of planning and sophistication in her use of the internet to carry on when efforts were made to stop her.
In terms of harm, the judgment states,
…all three features of Category 1, the highest level of harm, were present in this case: that is, very serious distress was caused to the victims, there was significant psychological harm caused and the victims had to make considerable changes to their lifestyles as a result of the conduct.
How the sentence was determined
According to the appeal judgment, within the sentencing guideline, Sabine’s crimes fell into category 1A, for which the starting point is five years’ custody, with a range from three and a half to eight years. This was not challenged by Sabine’s barrister.
Aggravating factors included the facts that Sabine had used her position of trust as a McKenzie friend to obtain and publish confidential court material, the material was grossly offensive, the impact on the children involved was great, and she had committed the offences while in breach of a restraining order and a conditional discharge. Mitigating factors included her previous “good character” until her 2016 conviction on breach of restraining order, her age, and her ill health. HHJ Cahill did not accept that Sabine had shown remorse, since she had never accepted that the allegations she made were untrue.
The appellate judges noted that had Sabine’s sentence only been for one stalking charge, she might have received a sentence of six years in view of the aggravating factors mentioned.
However, there were four stalking offences each committed against a different family and each family had suffered to an equally appalling degree. To arrive at a sentence which was proportionate to the totality of this offending, the judge increased the sentence for the stalking offences by two years to one of eight years’ imprisonment, and ordered the four sentences to run concurrently with each other.
As for the six breaches of the 2016 restraining order, each of them fell into the 1A category, with a starting point of two years and a range from one to four years. If these had been committed on their own, HHJ Cahill said she would have imposed two years’ imprisonment, to run concurrently, on counts 5, 6, 8, and 10. As well, she would have imposed two years on each of counts 20 and 21, which were quite different from the others in the way in which they were committed, and were committed while Sabine was on bail and in breach of further court orders. The sentences for 20 and 21 would have run concurrently, but separately from the sentences for the stalking charges.
However, taking into account Sabine’s age as well as the overall sentence, the judge decided to reduce each of the sentences to one year, and to have them served concurrently, but in addition to the eight years for stalking—for a total of nine years.
Grounds for appeal
According to the written judgment, Tom Stevens did not attempt to dispute HHJ Cahill’s assessment that all his client’s offences belonged in Category 1A, but he did seek to submit that the sentences imposed for the four stalking offences were “manifestly excessive”.
He made this argument on three grounds: Sabine’s age and ill health; her lack of prior criminal convictions at the time when the stalking began; and her alleged remorse for her crimes.
The appellate judges made swift work of the age argument, citing then-Lord Chief Justice Lord Woolf in the guideline case R v Millberry:
“… the court is always entitled to show a limited degree of mercy to an offender who is of advanced years, because of the impact that a sentence of imprisonment can have on an offender of that age.”
They pointed out that a discount on sentence is not a defendant’s right, but is a matter of the judge’s discretion. They noted that the word “limited” implies that age is a matter of limited weight in sentencing, unless the defendant is very aged indeed—such as 100 years old or older.
In addition, they said,
…it seems to us…that the judge gave a generous allowance for age, because it was a factor which she identified as a substantial consideration in leading her to reduce the total sentence for the breaches of the restraining order from four years to one year.
The matter of ill health, they said, relates to a defendant suffering from a terminal illness. As it is, Sabine’s various ailments fall well within the capacity of the prison where she is incarcerated, so her health is not a valid grounds for appeal.
Referring to Sabine’s lack of previous criminal record, the appellate judges pointed out that not only had HHJ Cahill already taken this into consideration, but
…its significance in this case seems to us to be very substantially diminished by the fact that, after the appellant was convicted of a breach of the restraining order in 2016, she ploughed on with her offending and committed all the offences for which she fell to be sentenced. In those circumstances, it is difficult to see that her lack of previous convictions was a substantial mitigating factor.
As regards Sabine’s alleged remorse, the written judgment is rather terse:
That, in our view, is a hopeless submission in circumstances where the judge, who had the benefit of observing the appellant throughout a long trial and throughout a long period of giving evidence, came to the conclusion that she entirely lacked remorse. That is not a judgment which we as an appellate court are in a position to second guess. Nor are the two factors on which Mr Stevens sought to place reliance in our view the objective indicators of remorse that he suggested. They are, first, the fact that when a Criminal Behaviour Order was imposed at the time of sentence the appellant instructed her counsel not to oppose the making of that order; and secondly, that at that stage she gave instructions to take down material that had been put up on the internet.
As to the first of those matters, the fact that the appellant did not oppose the making of a Criminal Behaviour Order simply showed at that stage at last some sense of realism on her part; but since such an order was bound to be imposed, it is hardly indicative of remorse. Furthermore, the fact that she gave instructions then to take material down may be said to have come far too late in the day. Had she heeded any of the endless warnings that she received throughout the sorry course of these events and taken down material rather than continuing to put it up, that might have been a factor to be taken into account in mitigation. Coming as it did only after she was convicted at her trial, it seems to us to be of very little significance.
Those of us who attended Sabine’s trial may also remember that during her cross-examination, she defiantly stated, “I will always believe what the children said”. To our knowledge, she has never retracted those words.
Noting that “by no stretch of the imagination can [Sabine’s sentence] be described as manifestly excessive”, the written judgment concludes that Sabine’s appeal was “entirely without merit” and that “the sentence passed on the appellant was, if anything, a lenient sentence”.
Cue the screaming from the other side. Starting in three…two…one….