Being posh and bright is no excuse for not going to jail

Oxford University student Lavinia Woodward avoided prison after receiving a 10-month suspended jail

Oxford University student Lavinia Woodward avoided prison after receiving a 10-month suspended jail sentence after she stabbed her boyfriend with a bread knife. Picture: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire - Credit: PA

Opinion: The Oxford medical student who escaped prison despite stabbing her boyfriends is a textbook case of how the system favours the privileged, says Rachel Moore.

A judge this week deemed an Oxford medical student too bright for prison for stabbing her boyfriend with a bread knife.

Too intelligent to be punished for taking a knife to a man who crossed her. Since when did having a gifted mind become mitigation for a violent crime?

Cue a flood of appeals against sentence from lawyers clutching clients' Mensa memberships.

The law sets out boundaries, expecting us all to have had the foresight and self-control to walk away from the heated row, or least resist the urge to grab a knife and use it on our adversary, or date in this case.


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But the court heard that 24-year-old Lavinia Woodward had a drug and drink addiction and was high on cocaine and alcohol when she stabbed and punched her date, hurling a laptop and glasses at him at her Oxford college.

So, we have a young woman, apparently blessed with all the gold-plated privileges that a wealthy upbringing offers training to be a doctor while hooked on cocaine and alcohol. Not the most promising foundations for a trainee doctor.

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She wouldn't be the first highly-privileged, academically-gifted young person to turn to drugs and booze, or the first to have those issues glossed over to stop any obstacles to a job.

This judge clearly considered her an ideal candidate for a heart surgeon. Self-control, I would have thought, would be a premier quality of a surgeon.

He hinted from the bench that 'the extraordinarily able young lady would be spared prison so not to damage her career chances, as she had battled gamely against her addictions.

Her crime, he said, was a 'one-off, a complete one-off' and her case had 'many mitigating features.' As have many that appear at crown court but end up in clink.

Without doubt, an aimless teenager brought up in social housing who had stabbed a boyfriend, or the pimp that was forcing her on to the streets every night, would have had the Holloway prison door slammed shut on her for months.

A male medical student with equal credentials, who had taken a knife to his girlfriend, would have most likely been sent down too.

Much has been said about the case putting off male victims of domestic violence going forward to the police. It won't have helped.

But the over-riding impression of this case – whether prison was the best place or not for Woodward, and probably not – is that the system still stinks.

It's 2017 and it's still skewed towards the elite and wealthy who seem to believe they are a different species, entitled and untouchable.

The circumstances in which you are born, whatever twaddle might be spouted about meritocracy and equality of opportunity, determines your chances, except in the most exceptional of cases.

Where you come from, where you went to school and who you still matters and speaks volumes to open doors, land jobs and, apparently, in this case, even swerving jail for a violent crime.

As the university terms start again, final-year students from the best public schools are returning to breeze though to their finals with lucrative job offers to start after graduation, secured after plum internships this summer.

Their state school contemporaries, who didn't get a look in when it came to these internship applications, are starting job hunting from scratch, to be dogged by student loans throughout their working life while their rich background counterparts start big jobs with a clean slate because their parents have covered the fees.

They might not be the brightest or the best but they are the most privileged and the world just works for them with minimal effort.

In the Woodward case, it's not so much the sentence that galls – the judge did impose a suspended sentence - but the implication that by reaching Oxford to study medicine somehow qualifies you to live on a higher plane and you can be excused for stabbing a man in the leg when high because he had the temerity to have telephoned her mother to tell her she had been drinking.

Promise can never mean exemption from punishment for a crime, nor privilege. The law is supposed to be the great leveler. Someone's background should never be a loophole.

Life may not be a level playing field, nowhere near, but this case sadly shows that neither is our legal system.

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