NI: NI Court of Appeal: 81-year-old man who abused his children refused leave to appeal conviction and sentence

An 81-year-old man has been unsuccessful in his application for leave to appeal both the severity of his sentence of six years’ imprisonment and his conviction for chronic abuse of eight of his children. He argued that the judge had erred in refusing his application to vacate his guilty plea after he changed his original legal team.

Refusing the application for leave to appeal, Justice Treacy was satisfied that the man posed a serious risk of reoffending, and was critical of advice given by the man’s legal team which was akin to “coaching” their client to manipulate his probation officer.


In December 2014 the applicant (WP) pleaded guilty to:

  • One count of sexual assault;
  • Seven counts of cruelty to a person under 16;
  • Four counts of indecent assault;
  • One count of an act of gross indecency with or towards a child.
  • The thirteen offences involved WP’s children.

    In January 2015 a new legal team came on record, and an application to vacate the pleas was subsequently received.

    In May 2015, Judge Fowler QC refused the application to vacate.

    WP was subsequently sentenced to 5 years’ imprisonment under the Criminal Justice (NI) Order 1996 and one year custody and 2 years extended licence under the Criminal Justice (NI) Order 2008.

    Appeal against Conviction

    In the Court of Appeal, WP contended that Judge Fowler QC erred in not allowing WP to vacate his pleas.

    In opposing the application to vacate the guilty plea, the prosecution submitted:

    • that WP gave an unequivocal plea tendered after proper advices by his lawyers;
    • that WP was medically fit to make decisions on his behalf at that stage;
    • a registered intermediary was available for the vacate hearing but was not required to assist WP in giving evidence; and
    • in the course of his evidence WP did not suggest he had any difficulties with memory.
    • It was clear from the various medical reports that “there was nothing of concern whatsoever with reference to WP’s capacity to plead guilty in December 2014 and moreover in June 2015 WP was cognitively good”.

      Justice Treacy stated that the Court could “entertain no doubt regarding the correctness of the decision not to vacate the plea”.

      The Court was satisfied that the judge did not misdirect himself or exercise his discretion in a wholly unreasonable manner. Nor was there any evidence to “cause… any unease about the pleas that were entered voluntarily following robust advice”.

      As such, the Court of Appeal was satisfied that the judge was correct in law to refuse to exercise his discretion to vacate the guilty pleas.

      Appeal against Sentence

      In his extensive sentencing remarks Judge Grant referred to the following aggravating features:

      • There were eight victims.
      • All the victims were young, innocent and vulnerable children and there was a substantial age difference between WP and victims.
      • There was a gross breach of position of trust.
      • The offences occurred in the family home.
      • Offending behaviour involved repeated offences over a protracted number of years involving a large number of children.
      • The children were subjected to threats not to report which was the reason why these matters did not emerge earlier.
      • The children, especially the girls, were exposed to sexualised language and conversations and behaviour of a highly disturbing nature.
      • Significant suffering of the victims over the years.
      • Severe emotional trauma caused to the victims.
      • Delivering the judgment of the Court of Appeal, Justice Treacy explained that there was “little by way of mitigation” as WP initially denied the offences, then after reluctantly admitting them; made an application to vacate his pleas.

        Risk of Serious Harm

        The sentencing judge specifically assessed the issue of risk of further offending and came to the conclusion in accordance with the pre-sentence report that WP presented a high likelihood of re-offending and, in addition, under the 2008 Order, there was a significant risk of serious harm to others.

        WP’s offending behaviour clearly evidenced “the risk of significant harm of a higher threshold than mere possibility”.

        His continued denial of offending during interview demonstrated “further evidence of his ongoing lack of concern for the victims’ wellbeing and his current capacity to psychologically harm and re-victimise”.

        The decision also reflected the following concerns:

        • Continuing high level of sexual pre-occupation.
        • Clear evidence of deviant behaviour towards female pre-pubescent and pubescent vulnerable victims.
        • The length of time over which WP assaulted his children and the recent resumption of abuse evidences an engrained pattern of behaviour that outweighs the absence of offending behaviour.
        • Hostile attitude towards women.
        • Use of coercion.
        • Negative emotionality.
        • Feelings of loneliness and social rejection.
        • Notwithstanding the foregoing, the sentencing judge did take into account the fact that pleas were entered to save the victims from having to give evidence in court; and also had regard to his age and health.

          In the Court of Appeal, written submissions from WP’s former solicitor clearly referred “to inappropriate sexual comments made to her whilst she was acting on his behalf”; and Justice Treacy noted that there was evidence WP continued to pose ”a significant risk to vulnerable females”.

          Given all of the above, the Court of Appeal found that “the sentencing judge was perfectly entitled to come to the conclusion that he did in relation to the risk of serious harm”.

          Leave was therefore refused to appeal both conviction and sentence.


          The Court added that it was “perturbed by the contents” of a document prepared by the applicant’s previous legal team which “could be viewed as an attempt to inappropriately coach” WP. In particular, some of the advice appeared to be a “direct attempt to persuade a client to say the “right thing” when the advisor knows that this will go against the clients own perceptions/intentions”.

          Justice Treacy deprecated the document, stating that it was “perilously like a set of instructions on how to manipulate the probation service and, through them, the court that will rely on the probation report”; adding that he hoped this did “not represent any widespread practice”.

          • by Seosamh Gráinséir for Irish Legal News
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