HHJ Smith indicated early in today’s hearing that he would make his sentencing remarks available once the case had concluded. I am immensely grateful as it ensures the accuracy in what I report here. I’ll post them here in their entirety without my comment. That may follow at a later date.
The only change I have made is to refer to the patients with the numbers that I have referred to them by throughout my reporting, for the sake of consistency.
With thanks to my crowdfunders who have supported my reporting throughout the Whorlton Hall trial.
Rex v Peter Bennett, Matthew Banner, Ryan Fuller and John Sanderson
1. Each of you was convicted following a trial last year, of offences of ill-treatment contrary to s.20 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015.
2. All of these offences were committed by you in the course of your employment at Whorlton Hall in County Durham. At the time it was operating as a secure residential hospital for adults with learning disabilities who had significant additional psychological and behavioural needs. The patients at Whorlton Hall had long-standing impairments in their intellectual functioning and significant impairments in their social and adaptive functioning – deficits which had, in most cases, been present throughout their lives.
3. Each of those patients frequently experienced high levels of distress and anxiety which could sometimes be overwhelming and which left them vulnerable to seriously harming themselves or other people.
4. As such they required a level of specialist care which was simply not available within community care settings.
5. Those in your care found the world (and the people in it) to be an unpredictable and inherently frightening place. They each suffered with high levels of anxiety. They needed predictability in their lives. They needed a calm and stable environment in which to live. And they needed a caring approach from those who had responsibility for looking after them.
6. Each of you individually failed those patients and their families.
7. Offences of this type are inherently serious. They involve a fundamental breach of the trust which should exist between the patient and the carer, and of the wider trust which should exist between those who entrust their loved ones to care and those who provide it. Each of you must have been acutely aware of the need for the families of patients at Whorlton Hall to be able to feel confidence in the care their loved ones would receive. And the undermining of broader public confidence in the care system caused by this sort of offending is another manifestation of the harm caused by this offending.
8. But it must not be overlooked that – at their very core – offences of this type inevitably involve harm being directly caused to a vulnerable victim.
9. The maximum sentence for this offence is one of five years’ imprisonment; a maximum sentence which has to cater for all offending of this type, including offences which are very much more serious examples of their kind and those committed by offenders with relevant previous convictions.
10. I have read with care, the pre-sentence reports prepared in each of your cases and the other documents submitted on your behalf.
11. I listened with care to the evidence during the trial. Much complaint was made about a lack of training provided by your employer. In my judgment this offending did not stem from a lack of training but rather this offending flowed from a malign culture which developed at Whorlton Hall. Working conditions were, I am satisfied, very difficult for you – this was stressful and demanding work – and the hospital may well have benefitted from a higher level of staffing – particularly permanent staff. But that cannot excuse behaviour which, in my view, reflected a marked departure from the expected standards of humanity, kindness, help and support you were required to provide.
12. I am asked to consider whether, in each of your cases, the offending is aggravated by hostility demonstrated by you towards your victims based upon their disabilities. That is not to suggest that the offences were motivated by such hostility. An offence is aggravated for these purposes if, at the time of committing the offence, or immediately before or after doing so, you demonstrated towards your victim hostility based upon their disability.
13. To some extent that is a fact which is inherent in the very nature of the offences for which you fall to be sentenced and so the sentences which I pass are designed to reflect the inescapable fact that each of your victims had disabilities and how the ill-treatment which was proven in this case involved – by its very nature – hostility being demonstrated towards them at the time because of those disabilities.
14. It is an additional aggravating feature of the offending here that, as a consequence of this offending, Whorlton Hall was closed down and each of the victims had to be rehomed.
15. By way of important mitigation each of you is of good character, each of you lost your jobs as a consequence of this offending and none of you poses a risk to the public from further offending.
16. In the absence of a specific sentencing guideline, I have had careful regard to the General Guideline: Overarching Principles issued by the Sentencing Council. I have also considered decisions from the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) and considered other sentencing guidelines as appropriate.
17. You are 54 years of age. You were convicted by the Jury of two counts – Counts 2 and 13. The first of those offences related to your behaviour towards Patient 1 in January 2019 when you deliberately caused her obvious distress by talking about balloons in her presence and repeatedly manipulating them into making a snapping noise. I am satisfied that you knew that balloons – and the risk of them popping and so making a loud noise – was something that could cause Patient 1 considerable distress and yet, on 6th January 2019, you went to her room and deliberately set about provoking her. It was a mean and callous thing to do.
18. I have carefully considered the VPS written by Patient 1’s mother and the Consultant Psychiatrist who is part of the team providing her ongoing care. Those documents speak of the impact upon Patient 1 and of the wider consequences of your offending in the harm caused by the breach of trust involved here.
19. Less than two months later, on the 28th February, you were again engaging in deliberate behaviour calculated to frustrate and intimidate another vulnerable patient – Patient 2. You sought to gratuitously belittle her communication problems by speaking to her in French and then you intimidated her by advancing towards her in an aggressive way.
20. The Consultant Psychiatrist involved in overseeing Patient 2’s care evidences how the new team responsible for looking after her have been working hard to rebuild the level of trust that Patient 2 has (and needs to have) in her carers. They have a concern that the impact of this offending upon her quality of life may be permanent although it is impossible for me to be sure about that. Be that as it may, it is in my view inescapable that, as with Patient 1, some harm was caused to her by this offending.
21. You had risen to the position of Senior Health Care Assistant after working at Whorlton Hall for many years; other staff doubtless looked up to you. It was, as you explained to your Probation Officer, Megan Cassidy, very challenging work and I am satisfied that in the months before this offending, that work had started to place you under very considerable pressure. That said, the Probation Officer who interviewed you felt that she detected discriminatory views which would, with hindsight, seem to make you poorly suited to working in this sector.
22. After your arrest and the loss of your employment you have worked hard to rebuild your life. The reference from your current employer speaks well of your good work ethic – for the reasons she outlines she considers you to be a real asset to her business. Your wife has also written a moving letter to the court speaking of how she depends upon you.
23. I know that you continue to maintain your innocence and so there is, perhaps unsurprisingly, no evidence of remorse in your case. There is, in your case, an attendant lack of insight into the experiences of your victims.
24. Criminal proceedings take their toll on all those involved; victims must wait for justice, their families live a life on hold as they wait for verdicts and defendants (both before and after a trial) anxiously await their fate. That pressure has impacted upon you just as it has upon your co-defendants.
25. You are, unsurprisingly, someone who presents a low risk of reoffending.
26. You expressed surprise to your Probation Officer that offending such as this might cross the custody threshold. Nobody should be under any such illusion. Let me spell it out to each of the four of you – the nature of this offending, the vulnerabilities of your victims and the breach of trust in which this offending took place means that the custody threshold has been crossed in every case I am dealing with this afternoon.
27. The sentences of imprisonment which I impose for your offending will be short; many will think you richly deserve to spend a good deal of time in prison. But in exercising my public duty I have to balance competing interests. And I have to do my best to pass sentences which balance the aggravating and mitigating features of your cases and which align with previous decisions of the Court of Appeal.
28. You, Peter Bennett, ill-treated two different patients. At the time you held a position of seniority – a position of responsibility- others undoubtedly looked up to you for guidance.
29. I propose to pass identical concurrent sentences on both counts – the sentence is designed to reflect your overall offending. On both counts there will therefore be a sentence of four months’ imprisonment.
30. You are 44 years old. You were convicted by the Jury of five separate offences.
31. On the 11th January 2019, perhaps inspired and emboldened by what you had witnessed Peter Bennett doing only a few days’ earlier, you sought to exploit Patient 1’s vulnerabilities for your own entertainment – you too set about causing her unnecessary distress by referencing balloons. And with her preference for female carers well in mind, you deliberately goaded her by threatening her with an increasing number of male carers. It was a cruel and uncaring thing to do and done whilst ignoring the obvious distress it was causing her.
32. You repeated your behaviour towards Patient 1 in respect of balloons on 28th January and on 21st February and on the 22nd February. The Jury saw through your claims to them that this was all innocent conversation and part of everyday interaction.
33. I have already referenced the impact that this offending has had on Patient 1 and upon her family. You too must bear some responsibility for that.
34. You were also a Senior Health Care Assistant – a role which brought additional responsibilities.
35. Your pre-sentence report makes clear how the manner in which these offences came to light and how the trial and your subsequent conviction – under the spotlight of local and national publicity – has adversely affected you.
36. Although you focused your offending towards a single patient, Patient 1, there was, in your case, a degree of persistence to your behaviour. In those circumstances I see no substantial reason to distinguish between you and Peter Bennett when determining the level of sentence for these offences.
37. In those circumstances, the sentence on each count will be one of four months’ imprisonment.
38. You are 28. You were convicted of two counts by the Jury.
39. On the 29th January 2019 you were recorded demonstrating to the undercover reporter how you had seemingly trained one of the patients to respond to your instructions and to lie on the floor to simulate how they would be restrained. Whilst Patient 5 was minding his own business watching football on the television, you forced him to follow your instructions. As he lay supine on the floor you proceeded to simulate a fleeting assault upon him. By so doing you stole his dignity – demeaning him in front of others for your own entertainment.
40. Four days later you were captured by the undercover reporter’s hidden camera persistently tormenting another patient, Patient 6, with repeated challenges to a fight.
41. So far as Patient 5 is concerned, the level of impact of your offending upon him is impossible to discern but the impact upon his family has been substantial; they have been left with feelings of guilt and sorrow and betrayal.
42. So far as Patient 6 is concerned it would appear that after he moved from Whorlton Hall his difficulties with trust and the consequent degree of hypervigilance he showed have abated. I am satisfied he was caused some harm by your offending.
43. By the time of your offending, you too had been promoted to the role of Senior Health Care Assistant at Whorlton Hall.
44. I have read with care the pre-sentence report prepared in your case. Since these matters came to light, and since your conviction, you have spent time reflecting upon what you did and the author of the report detects a clear level of remorse in your case and these proceedings have impacted upon your mental health. I have seen and read the personal document you have written and there are two references which I have also read attesting to your qualities.
45. Bearing in mind all that I have read about you, and balancing the aggravating and mitigating features of your offending, I have come to the conclusion that the least possible sentence in your case is one of three months’ imprisonment and that is the sentence that I pass concurrently on both counts.
46. Finally, I turn to you John Sanderson – you are now 26. On the 25th February 2019 you went to Patient 4’s room. He was already in a distressed state yet you set about quite unnecessarily disturbing his personal possessions. In frustration, and as a natural consequence of his increased level of agitation, he struck out at you. You responded with patronising and sexist language, and, by a combination of words and actions, you threatened him with serious violence. As you left you gratuitously turned on his light – an innocuous enough action in other settings, but here one calculated by you to increase Patient 4’s level of agitation.
47. Patient 4’s sister – like so many family members in these circumstances – has been left with feelings of guilt and sorrow. She has been left perplexed by how anyone could be so nasty and cruel to someone so obviously vulnerable.
48. Those responsible for Patient 4’s ongoing care have concerns that he suffered from significant trauma during his time at Whorlton Hall – he seemingly developed a noticeable degree of distrust towards carers after his time at Whorlton Hall. I can in no way be sure that you should bear sole responsibility for that but you did cause him some harm by your offending.
49. You are the youngest of the defendants – you were 21 years’ old at the time – and I have to sentence you for a single offence – albeit a troubling one.
50. You had only been employed as a Healthcare Assistant at Whorlton Hall for a short period of time and you had yourself twice been injured whilst at work (requiring periods of time away from work). The author of your pre-sentence report sets out how there is a clear and high level of remorse in your case. You clearly recognise that you let not only yourself down but also your wider family and importantly, as you acknowledge, Patient 4 and his family too. These proceedings have impacted upon you particularly and it is clear to me that your mental health has been particularly affected.
51. Bearing in mind your age at the time and the other mitigation personal to you, I have come to the conclusion that the right sentence in your case is one of six weeks’ imprisonment.
52. There is only one remaining question in each of your cases; the critical question of whether the sentences should be suspended or whether the terms of imprisonment need to be served immediately.
53. To assist me I have had careful regard to the Sentencing Council Overarching Guideline on Imposition of Community and Custodial Sentences.
54. It is a finely-balanced decision in this case and I can tell you that I have laboured over if for some time. Indeed, I cannot think of a time when I have had to give such anxious consideration to a sentencing exercise.
55. In this case there has been, through no fault of your own, significant delay in sentencing this case. I am acutely conscious that each of you has had a long and anxious wait since the jury returned their verdicts. I do not underestimate the impact that that delay will have had upon you. Twice you will have readied yourself for the sentencing hearing and twice, hours or days before the anticipated hearing, events have overtaken the court and the hearing has had to be vacated. Those temporary stays of execution, so to speak, cannot have been easy to experience.
56. The delay in bringing your case to a conclusion, and the added difficulties which that will have visited upon you, tip the fine balance in favour of suspending these sentences.
57. By suspending these sentences I am able to send out the clear and unambiguous message that this sort of offending is serious and will be treated so by the courts. And I am able to impose an immediate punishment upon each of you in the form of unpaid work.
58. In your case Peter Bennett the sentence of four months’ imprisonment will be suspended for 18 months – in that time you will perform 280 hours of unpaid work.
59. You Matthew Banner will similarly perform 280 hours of unpaid work during the 18 month period of suspension. And so the sentence in your case is one of four months’ imprisonment suspended for a period of 18 months.
60. In your case Ryan Fuller there will be 240 hours of unpaid work to be completed over the course of the next fifteen months – the period during which your three month sentence of imprisonment is suspended.
61. Finally, John Sanderson, I order you to complete 200 hours of unpaid work within the next twelve months – your sentence of six weeks’ imprisonment will be suspended for that same twelve month term.
62. Each of you need to know this, if you do not cooperate with the Probation Service, if you do not perform that work to the best of your ability, you will find yourself back before the Crown Court and your terms of imprisonment may have to be served in whole or in part. The same fate would await you were you foolish enough to commit any further offence during the period of suspension.
63. The statutory surcharge provisions apply in each of your cases and the orders will be drawn up and administered in the usual way.
HHJ Chris Smith
Teeside Combined Court Centre