"A gang of Muslim women who attacked a passer-by in a city centre walked free from court after a judge heard they were 'not used to being drunk' because of their religion". Daily Mail, 7th December 2011.
A number of newspapers published articles yesterday about a case which took place at Leicester Crown Court where a group of four women received suspended sentences for actual bodily harm to a female passer-by in the city centre.
The papers all chose to focus their articles on the unusual factor involved in the case which was that the women were not used to drinking alcohol since they were Muslim and therefore their behaviour was somewhat affected by this. The stance taken by the papers was that as a result, the women received lesser sentences than would normally be given for the crime.
Given that this seemed to be quite an unusual case, Full Fact decided to investigate.
We contacted the Judicial Office to find out more details about the case and they told us the judgement was given orally and therefore there was no written manuscript available. They did however point us towards an article written in the Leicester Mercury. They also asserted that the reference to alcohol had been made in mitigation of the accused and that the role of the victim's boyfriend was one which impacted on the judgement.
According to the Mercury, the Judge Robert Brown said, "This was ugly and reflects very badly on all four of you. Those who knock someone to the floor and kick them in the head can expect to go inside, but I'm going to suspend the sentence".
The paper reported that the Judge accepted the women may have been victims of unreasonable force from the victim's partner, who was walking with her at the time of the attack. The inference by the article, and by our contact with the Judiciary, was that this admission led to the suspended sentence.
The reference to alcohol was made in mitigation by Gary Short, "They're Somalian Muslims and alcohol or drugs isn't something they're used to", and appears towards the end of the article. It is therefore written as a detail of the case rather than as a factor influencing the judgement.
We contacted Mr Short to confirm whether he felt this statement had impacted on the judgement, but we were told he is not making any comments about the case.
The fact that the Metro's headline claimed the women were freed simply because they were 'not used to being drunk' is an inaccurate reflection of the case. Within the body of the article it did refer to this statement as part of the mitigation. Whilst the other two papers did not report the case inaccurately, the implication that the mitigation directly led to a reduced sentence edges the articles towards a false representation of the case, as reported by the Leicester Mercury.
While most of the papers did accurately report the events of the case, the prominence given to a small detail of the case creates a misleading interpretation of why the women received lesser sentences.
In reality, the article in the Mercury endorsed by the Judicial Office implies this was actually because of unreasonable force exerted by the victim's boyfriend on to the attackers.
It may be that this handling of the story reflects inexperience in reporting legal issues on the part of the journalists concerned. Lawyers and academics have warned about such effects from the decline in court reporting.
Since the papers state the Judge reached his decision 'after' hearing the mitigation about alcohol use, rather than 'because' of it, they are not directly reporting it incorrectly. However, it is important to make sure that this nuance is not lost in future reporting of the case, much like the Metro's headline.