Pump Court Chambers

How much mitigation should be afforded to a gambling addiction when sentencing for dishonesty?

News 3rd January 2023
Mark Ruffell

By Mark Ruffell

This was the question that the Court had to consider when sentencing Martin Sargeant for fraud. He had stolen £5.2 million from the Church of England over 11 years when working as an administrator. He had worked hard, and had a good reputation, but this had hidden his dishonesty which had commenced sometime after his employment had begun. His fraud was a huge breach of trust, causing serious financial and reputational harm to his employer. He had previous convictions for similar matters, which his employer was aware of. Although the proceeds of the fraud were not solely spent on gambling, the Court accepted that gambling was the prime motive for his decision to offend and keep offending. HHJ Grieve KC at Southwark Crown Court took a starting point of 8 ½ years’ imprisonment but reduced it by a year due to Martin Sargeant’s gambling addiction, before then giving him full credit resulting in a sentence of 5 years’ imprisonment being imposed.

Under the Sentencing Council’s guidelines for fraud there are listed 3 factors reducing seriousness or reflecting personal mitigation, under which a gambling addiction may fall: Serious medical conditions requiring urgent, intensive or long-term treatment; Mental disorder or learning disability; Determination and/or demonstration of steps taken to address addiction or offending behaviour.

Martin Sargeant’s gambling addiction went back over 30 years to his teenage years and centred on his use of fruit machines. Whilst he could avoid visiting arcades by being busy during the day, it was somewhat harder to avoid when he discovered online gambling, which then persistently sent him messages to keep gambling. By way of example, he played one online fruit machine with one company 1.2 million times, placing a £10 bet each time and gambling his winnings day after day, eventually losing about £600,000 with them. Another online company gave him a £5,600 voucher so that he could travel to Las Vegas to go on a gambling holiday. Another online company happily took £1,000 every 20 minutes for weeks on end.

Gambling has been recognised as a mental illness. For example, during the recent World Cup, the Royal College of Psychiatrists Lead on Behavioural Addictions, Consultant Psychiatrist Professor Henrietta Bowden-Jones OBE, said:

“We must acknowledge gambling disorder as a mental illness and treat it accordingly, in an evidence-based way within an NHS setting. We welcome the news of the two new gambling addiction clinics which have opened in England today, we must do all we can to provide patients with the treatment they deserve.

“Gambling disorder has a devastating impact on individuals and families. People feel trapped and sometimes their gambling can get out of control, leading to severe mental illness as well as suicidal thinking.

“It is estimated that more than 400 lives lost to suicide each year in England are associated with problem gambling. There will be thousands of people out there in urgent need of help, which is why this also must be seen as a public health issue.”

“The starting of the World Cup will have inevitably acted as a trigger to many. Our patients are often very anxious about their ability to manage their cravings and urges, particularly at a time with even more devastating consequences as we face the impending cost-of-living crisis.

“With this in mind, it is important for everyone with a gambling disorder to put appropriate self-exclusion agreements in place, both online and in-person. This will make it much harder for them to gamble online or in bookmakers.

“We encourage anyone struggling to cope to seek help before it gets to the point of no return.”

Gambling to the public and to a certain extent the Courts would seem to be a less well-known addiction. Perhaps this is because we all like to buy lottery tickets, raffle tickets and have a flutter on The Grand National? Perhaps when we gamble, we recognise that we will almost certainly lose, and we make a decision that we can afford to lose the small amount that we have bet and we are not going to have another go this week (lottery) or this year (The Grand National)? The same cannot be said for gambling addicts. Martin Sargeant, who had spent the months between his arrest and eventual sentence at a residential treatment programme run by Gordon Moody, told of his personal relationship with a fruit machine. It was his friend, a safe place that he could go, where he was in control. None of that makes much sense to an outsider, but to someone with many unresolved issues from their childhood and consequential vulnerabilities, this was where he had gone for solace.

The Courts of course have much more experience of sentencing addicts who take drugs and commit acquisitive crime to fund their addictions. The debate on how to sentence drug addicts, particularly first-time offenders, is well known, with a dynamic balance existing between rehabilitation and punishment. For a first-time offender, the Courts generally give greater weight to the addiction and a drug rehabilitation requirement may form part of the sentence. However, a persistent offender, who has persistently failed to resolve their addiction through rehabilitation will inevitably receive a custodial sentence.  Having a drug addiction will not mitigate a sentence for shoplifting when it is the 10th such offence, even though the Courts may consider it as the primary cause for the offending.

There would seem to be some parallels when Courts sentence gambling addicts. When determining how the balance should lie, between punishment and rehabilitation, the Courts have generally come down on the side of punishment. The first-time offender, who as an employee stole £10 from the till, having spent all his savings and earnings on gambling and is an addict, is much more likely to receive a community order with a rehabilitation requirement. The fact of the conviction and the effect of the sentence are both seen as punitive, particularly when attempting to find new employment. Such an offence is at the opposite end of the spectrum to that committed by Martin Sargeant. It is unlikely that the balance will switch the other way, so that a serious addiction will result in significant mitigation where the offending is in a higher category of harm. This is perhaps because the Courts would not wish to signal to addicts that lenient sentences are handed out to addicts, contrary to the current hoped for deterrent effect of knowing that ordinarily lengthy custodial sentences are the norm.

Whether gambling should be treated the same as drug addiction is perhaps something that psychiatrists should address. Both addictions are likely to reside in an offender after any sentence has concluded, and both may require long term support to prevent the offender succumbing to their addiction in the future. The two addictions exist in two different worlds: drugs are criminalised, gambling is licensed. Persistent drug use will eventually cause serious physical harm and potentially death to the addict’s body and mind. Persistent gambling carries mental health dangers and there is a well-documented path to suicide. Although not part of Martin Sargeant’s case, the dangers of self-harm should not be understated, and a psychiatric assessment, particularly in relation to imprisonment, may play a part in mitigating a sentence.

Therefore, there is no precise answer to the question of how much mitigation should be afforded to a gambling addiction when sentencing for dishonesty. A Court will inevitably favour punishment over rehabilitation for anything other than an offence in a low harm category. However, as further research is undertaken into the effects of gambling addiction it is likely that Courts will have to take account of the harm that it causes to the long term mental health of those who have been addicted.

Mark Ruffell represented Martin Sargeant when he was sentenced on 19 December 2022.




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