In the Media

Christine Hemming's sentence was no foregone conclusion

PUBLISHED October 28, 2011

To an onlooker, prison would have seemed about as likely as setting her in stocks ? but these are strange times, post-riots Defendants are always described as sitting impassively in the dock, but I wonder what face you'd make if you were to try to express your feelings, awaiting sentence for the theft of your husband's girlfriend's kitten. Christine Hemming, wife of the Liberal Democrat MP John, betrayed very little, beyond an anxious set to her mouth. Her defence, Gerald Bermingham, directed the judge to character witnesses who attested, during the hearing last month, that she's a "woman who has done much to help others in the course of her life, and has been the subject of enormous pressures which were not of her making". That's what she looks like, a person who would help you, if she could, but was at the end of her rope. No doubt friends of Emily Cox, girlfriend of John Hemming and owner of the kitten, would say the same about her. As implacably opposed as they are to one another (and Christine Hemming was cautioned in April 2010 for assaulting Cox) it's quite hard to see either of these women as the bad guy. I can't vouch for the fidelity of the feline, who has never reappeared. Despite the fact that, as the prosecuting barrister Jason Pegg repeatedly pointed out, this crime does cross the threshold for a custodial sentence, a year ago you wouldn't have given it a second thought. Christine Hemming has three children, the youngest of whom is 11, so she would doubtless have been in a state of high anxiety whatever the sentencing climate; but to an onlooker, prison would have seemed about as likely as setting her in stocks. You would have sat in this tatty, likeable 80s function room, thinking "stop pretending to be solemn and just admit it's 20 hours community service". However, these are strange times, post-riots. I have sat in a room uncannily like this, in the last two months, and listened to a man be bound over for stealing a packet of fags. It's not unusual at the moment to hear of a 16-month sentence for the crime of "theft by finding" (imagine if you applied that to cats). So what I imagined to be Ms Hemming's anxiety seemed reasonable; I shared it. They just might send her down. And what kind of justice would that be, if they did? But what kind of justice is it if they don't? Judge Elizabeth Fisher, having presided over the first hearing, knew well the details of the case: Christine had gone to Cox's house, less than a week after her husband had moved out of their family home, to deliver some post. She saw John Hemming, through the window, sharing a pizza with his and Cox's daughter, Isabel, who was then four. Christine sneaked into the property, unseen (I believe the legal term for this is trespassing), and, even though she has no memory of it, she doesn't deny that she left carrying the kitten (at this point it becomes burglary). History cannot relate whether or not she would have owned up, had she not been caught on pesky CCTV, so it's hard to say how much remorse she feels. She did at one point comment that she was happy to buy the couple another kitten, which to my mind is a bit like saying "it's only a bloody cat". John Hemming and Cox have taken the opposite view, amplifying the importance of the kitten beyond any of the emotional explosion that led to its abduction. "I know this is a dream story for newspapers" John Hemming told the Birmingham Mail. "The MP, his wife, his girlfriend and a kitten ? but it is very serious because there is a kitten missing out there." The kitten itself, Pegg reminds the court, has never been recovered; Christine Hemming insists that she took Beauty back to the vicinity of the house and set it free. As a means of returning a kitten, this turned out to be ineffective. Bermingham did a great job for his client, even if his wig did look as if it were made of earwax (is there something in the law that says you're not allowed to get a new one?). "I recognise that your honour has a public duty," he said to the judge, adding "whatever one's heart might tell one," and delicately trailing off. Fisher bowed her head for what might have been 90 seconds, I think to convey that she was properly deliberating, not just coming in to inform everyone of a decision she'd made a month ago. She handed Christine Hemming a nine-month suspended sentence and 150 hours' community service. She rejected the prosecution's call for a restraining order, prohibiting Ms Hemming's approaching Cox or Isabel, on the basis that she had never shown any desire to contact either party, and plus, Isabel's ballet lesson is round the back of Ms Hemming's house. And then, after a chat with her probation officer, Christine Hemming dashed from the court building. A pack of reporters thrust their cameras into her taxi, and one yelled "how do you feel?" repeatedly, like a counsellor crossed with a hooligan. She maintained a silence that was probably part-dignity and part-serialisation deal with a weekend tabloid. Pegg wanted Christine Hemming to pay ?2,300 in costs towards the injured family. The judge acceded to the principle but reduced the amount to ?1,000, giving her a month to find the money. John Hemming earns ?200,000 a year from running his business, and ?65,738 as his MP's salary. Christine Hemming is on jobseeker's allowance. So anyway, I hope he spends it on something nice. Crime Zoe Williams © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds