A senior barrister has been handed a three-month suspended sentence for harassing his ex-girlfriend.
Convicting barrister and BRA governor Peter Sefton of harassment at Craigavon Magistrates’ Court, District Judge Liam McNally told the lawyer, standing with his hands behind his back, that a three-month jail term was appropriate given the nature and circumstances of the case.
The judge added however that he was suspending that sentence for two years not because he was a barrister and may lose potential work in the future but that “albeit belatedly you took the sensible course and stopped this conduct”.
As well as the suspended jail term, District Judge McNally ordered 64-year-old Sefton to pay a £3,000 compensation order to his victim or face three months in jail and imposed a two year restraining order barring the lawyer from contacting his ex-girlfriend and from “publishing any article or image of her on the internet or any social media site”.
During a three day contest hearing last week, the court heard how Sefton and his ex-girlfriend, a social worker in her early 30s met through working at the courts and began a relationship in March 2012 but that by the beginning of May there were problems and had become an “on/off relationship” with the victim receiving numerous “worrying texts”.
“One minute he was telling her that he loved her and the next the texts were hateful in nature,” prosecution lawyer Ms Ros Scott-Bell told the court.
A 600-page document of text messages was handed to the judge that listed some of the abusive messages Sefton had sent her.
As well as verbally abusing his victim, he also threatened to report her mother for alleged professional misconduct, texting her on 27 May stating:
“You and your mother are quite a pair. She is finished and you are finished as a social worker.”
Describing some of the messages as “highly derogatory, malicious and unpleasant,” Ms Scott-Bell said Sefton also took to driving past and parking outside her home, sometimes for hours and often in the early hours of the morning and that he would text or call while outside.
For example, on 1 June at 2.25am he sent a text saying “I’m outside, can I come in please”, which left his victim “disturbed, worried and distressed”.
Three days later she told her spurned lover: “Peter all this driving past my house has to stop. It’s getting out of hand. It needs to stop or I will go to the police.”
Despite that plea Sefton “continued to inundate her with texts” and she eventually reported the matter to the police on 15 June after which officers served him formal Police Inquiry Notice (PIN).
“From that day, if it wasn’t already clear before, it must have been obvious to him that she viewed what he was doing to her as a harassment,” said the lawyer, but she added that “in spite of her clear and demonstrable desire to get him to stop he continued”.
Sefton also told his victim to log into his “Instagram” account and when she did, she found a picture of herself and another of the lawyer’s ex-partners with an inappropriate caption. Judge McNally heard how a non-molestation order had been in place, barring Sefton from contacting that ex.
Arrested and interviewed by police in September 2012, Sefton denied doing anything wrong, claiming that he was worried about his ex’s health and wanted to illicit a response, claims he repeated whilst giving evidence on his own behalf.
Delivering his judgement on Monday, Judge McNally said he was disregarding many of the allegations of Sefton driving past or parking outside his victims home due to inconsistencies in her evidence and that there were “serious doubts” over the credibility of the victim’s mother.
The judge added however that the text messages and their content could not be in doubt and need to be considered “in some detail” including texts where he told her her house was “disgusting,” that she was playing “excellent mind games” and that “as Churchill said I will soon be sober, you will always be bonkers”.
Quoting from other texts, the judge said that on one occasion having been parked outside her house for hours, he repeatedly texted to ask for “a cup of tea”.
Describing the text messages as “bombardment,” judge said he could find no word in the English language which would describe it better.
“In a nutshell from May onwards he sent a large number of texts to her [which were] clearly insulting, abusive, intimidating and controlling,” said the judge adding that, “I have no difficulty in concluding that he pursued a course of conduct and that he knew this course of conduct amounted to harassment”.
He continued: “I can do no better than adopt the description which he himself gave of his characteristics in text messages on 4 June to the effect that he was difficult, headstrong, proud and arrogant. Accordingly I can pick him on the charge on harassment on dates between 11 May and 18 September 2012.”
Making his plea in mitigation, solicitor Richard Monteith said Sefton, from the Long Rig Road in Nutts Corner, Crumlin, had already paid a penalty in that he had not been instructed by the Public Prosecution Service since the matter was reported to police and that he faces further potential sanctions from the Bar Counsels’ disciplinary board.