Honour for Mrs A who battled bravely to bring a fundamental change in law

Shirley Woodman with her daughter Shelley Wolfson.
Shirley Woodman with her daughter Shelley Wolfson.
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JUST under a month ago, Shirley Woodman received a letter from the Cabinet Office in Downing Street. It informed her that her name was one of those recommended to the Queen to receive an MBE in the New Year Honours “for services to the community in Yorkshire”. Stunned, temporarily speechless and sworn to confidentiality, the very sociable Shirley was left to mull over why and how this had come about. Someone among her many friends and contacts had recommended her and sent written submissions for consideration.

Her many areas of activity, including 34 years in teaching (many as head teacher of a school for children with special needs in Bradford), professional associations, charities, luncheon clubs for the elderly, work with the Ramblers’ Association over 55 years and in her local neighbourhood association... perhaps this kind of thing qualified her, she thought.

When she saw her daughter Shelley shortly afterwards Shirley said: “Have you heard from the Cabinet Office lately?” She’d rumbled Shelley, and in a whispered conversation in the cafe of a health club Shelley explained how she had rallied the support of staunch allies of Shirley’s for the submissions she had written to the Government regarding why her mother was so deserving of public recognition. But, valuable though Shirley’s work in her community was, the main thrust of the submission was what this one woman had done to change the law of the land.

Eight years ago Shirley Woodman, who at that time insisted on anonymity (being referred to only as Mrs A in proceedings) took on the Law of Limitations and ended up in the highest court of the land, winning the right to sue the man who had attacked her from behind as she took a lunchtime stroll in Roundhay Park, Leeds, in 1988.

Her success followed four years spent pursuing the case through other courts, surviving rejection but each time finding the energy and determination to fight on.

Shirley saw the struggle as a clear injustice which not only affected her but potentially thousands of others who were previously only allowed to fight for compensation from their attacker within six years of the crime being committed.

After the sexual assault on Shirley, which happened in broad daylight in a quiet woodland glade, and despite being deeply traumatised, the then 58-year-old had seen her attacker’s closely enough to identify him. She became the principal prosecution witness in his trial a year later. Iorworth Hoare, from Seacroft, Leeds, who had a string of convictions for other rapes and sexual assaults, was sent to prison for life in early 1989. Shirley went on with her busy life, despite the fears and flashbacks that often haunted her.

Then, in 2004, Hoare won £7.2m on a Lottery ticket he had bought while out of prison on day release prior to leaving prison after serving 15 years. There was no legal reason why he could not keep the money, and after release he moved to a large house on an exclusive estate in the north-east. Meanwhile, Shirley, like many victims of violence, had received £5,000 in compensation from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board. She had not previously attempted to sue Hoare personally for compensation for her suffering because at the time he was, as she says, “a pauper”. When she decided to fight to change the law, the Leeds branch of legal firm DLA Piper offered to represent her and cover her costs, as they strongly believed the change was needed. In the end Hoare had to pay Shirley’s legal costs out of his Lotto winnings.

Once the House of Lords ruled after two hearings that the law in this area did need to be altered, Shirley was then free to sue Hoare for compensation, and a confidential out-of-court settlement was reached in 2008. Still Shirley retained her anonymity, only agreeing to waive the secrecy around her identity as one of the conditions of accepting the MBE last week. Stepping out of the protective cloak has been difficult, but she is so pleased she feels the honour is worth whatever panic she might occasionally feel.

“I felt very strongly that mum’s courage and determination deserved public recognition, and actually first submitted the paperwork four years ago, not long after the case was won,” says Shelley. “Nothing happened for two years, then I heard by a roundabout route that the anonymity might cause a problem. After that I re-submitted the papers, and when it looked quite recently as though something might happen, I couldn’t say anything to her about it but we did have a chat about the anonymity. Mum said ‘when I’m dead you can tell people it was me who did it.’ I told her I thought it would be better for her to tell people while she was still alive and she came around to saying that maybe she agreed with me. I then felt she would probably waive the anonymity if the MBE was offered.”

Shirley adds: “I never felt I deserved an honour. I was simply fighting what I saw as a terrible injustice. It’s the fight that matters – doing it not only for myself but for the many others who deserve more recognition of and compensation for their suffering. I gave every penny I got to charity because it was never about the money. I have my pension and a family who look after me in other important ways, so it was never about how much I could get for myself. I was advised to try for more money than the sum we settled on, but I felt there was indignity in that.

“All along it was about how a man could do so much damage and his victims get so little, even when he wins £7m. This was an unusual case, as the Lords said, but there are victims who don’t feel strong enough to even think about suing for compensation until many years after the crime, including children who years ago suffered abuse while in care.”

Shelley says she has the utmost admiration for her “strong and determined” mother. But she and only a few others knew the real scars that Shirley was hiding as she went off for her daily half-mile swim, long-distance rambles with her walking group, served up lunches, and played tennis regularly until just a few years ago. She might have still felt some residual private fear about Iorworth Hoare, but the enviably physically fit Shirley celebrated her 80th birthday by scaling Yorkshire’s Three Peaks in under 12 hours. The word indomitable might have been coined with her in mind. But the dark times still sometimes haunt her.

“For a couple of months after the attack I couldn’t leave the house,” says Shirley, “and for about a year I wouldn’t go into the park or go into crowds of people, because I believed everyone was looking at me. Then I decided I was giving in to him and the fear he created if I didn’t make myself go into the park and do all the usual things. It took a long time to feel okay about it, though. For a long time I was frozen with terror if someone came up behind me. Yet when people asked me how I felt, I just told them I was getting on with things and such an awful attack only happens once in a lifetime.

“Privately, the emotional and psychological damage was still there, but I learned to put it in a box and deal with it within my own four walls. When Hoare was released in 2004 I locked myself in the house, convinced he would come and get me, as I was the one who put him behind bars for so long. But the police came and talked to me and were wonderful throughout the whole thing. There is still an exclusion zone in operation around my home. Each time I got frightened I had to persuade myself out if it, because I did not want to live my life as a victim.

“Having been anonymous for 23 years I approached the idea of waiving my anonymity with trepidation, but I have had great support, with cards, letters, phone calls and flowers from many people, some of them strangers. I must say I don’t recognise myself as described in the submissions Shelley sent. I’m quite bemused and amazed by it all, really, as when you’re in the middle of it all you just take each day at a time and don’t talk about it constantly. You don’t see yourself as some sort of saint or pioneer. Friends and acquaintances have been quite astounded that all this was going on for years and they knew nothing.

“Whenever I went to court to listen to the hearing, I didn’t walk in with the barrister and others; I slipped in separately, and no-one else knew that ‘Mrs A’ was in fact somewhere there. Each time Press photographers and reporters would ask the barrister ‘Is she coming?’ and each time he said ‘No’. On the day we finally knew they would be recommending the change in the law, it was difficult not to scream with joy. I waited until we all got out of court, met up with the legal team in a quiet corner, and we were finally able to enjoy a big hug of jubilation.”

Fervent royalist Shirley is hoping she’ll receive her honour from the Queen herself later this year.

“One of the greatest things about mum is that she never let all this take over her life, as it could have done,” says Shelley. “It’s as though she almost didn’t know the enormity of what she was doing. She succeeded and her attacker is now the victim. She has so much dignity and integrity...he really picked on the wrong woman. And even though she is so modest, with this MBE she will die a happy woman.”