The court of appeal has reduced the jail sentence of a serial cyberstalker who harassed women by creating fake social media accounts to spread fake claims about them.
Matthew Hardy, 31, was jailed for nine years last January at Chester crown court after pleading guilty to stalking involving fear of violence and harassment after breaching a restraining order.
On Wednesday three judges sitting in the court of appeal reduced the sentence to eight years because of a legal oversight in the original sentencing.
Hardy, whose story was documented by the Guardian in podcast series Can I Tell You Secret, appeared in court via videolink from prison. He showed no emotion as a court clerk told him: “Mr Hardy your sentence is now eight years.”
His lawyer, Sara Haque, told the court, the original sentence was too long because it failed to take into account his mental disorders and inability to understand the impact of his actions on his victims.
She said: “When one considers the developmental disorder of the appellant, the sentence is manifestly excessive.”
But the court ruled the original sentence correctly took into account Hardy’s condition. Mrs Justice McGowan, one of three judges hearing the appeal, said: “The appellant’s medical condition – he suffered from Asperger’s and autism – was clear and well documented. It led to him suffering from a lack of empathy, such that he was not always able to understand the impact that his behaviour would have on others. The learned judge rightly reduced the term that he had in mind by 25% to allow for that mental disorder.”
McGowan also rejected Haque’s claim that Hardy’s crimes should have been treated as less serious offences in the original sentencing.
Referring to Haque’s argument, the judge said: “She denies that this was sophisticated offending, we disagree. The level of manipulation of social media accounts, the obtaining of real photographs in order to create fake accounts to purport to come from these claimants was in our view both planned and sophisticated. We accept that the conduct was clearly intended planned and premeditated.”
McGowan added: “This offending clearly had a profound effect on many others than the complainants, and the learned judge was perfectly right to take that into account.”
But the panel reduced Hardy’s jail term by a year because the sentencing judge had failed to realise that maximum terms for these offences were increased in April 2017 from five years to 10 years.
McGowan said: “The general principle is that if an offence passes over the date at which the statutory maximum is increased, the sentencer should be bound by the lower of the two maximum sentences.”
She added: “Where we think the learned judge was in error was to increase the starting point from five years to as high as an eight-year term … Accordingly the total term to be served remains one of eight years.”
Throughout the 90-minute hearing Hardy sat behind a prison table occasionally looking down at a page of notes.