Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Questions (515)

Niall Collins


515. Deputy Niall Collins asked the Minister for Justice and Equality his plans for establishing sentencing guidelines; if he intends to set up a sentencing council; the discussions he has held with the LRC on this issue; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10132/13]

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Written answers (Question to Justice)

The Deputy will appreciate that judges are independent in the matter of sentencing, as in other matters concerning the exercise of judicial functions, subject only to the Constitution and the law. In accordance with this principle, the role of the Oireachtas has been to specify in law a maximum penalty and a court, having considered all the circumstances of the case, to impose an appropriate penalty up to that maximum. The court is required to impose a sentence which is proportionate not only to the crime but to the individual offender, in that process identifying where on the sentencing range the particular case should lie and then applying any mitigating factors which may be present.

There are, of course, a small number of situations where statute has created exceptions to this approach most notably by providing for mandatory sentences for murder and presumptive minimum sentences in the case of certain firearms and drug trafficking offences. Except for exceptional circumstances, I am of the view that the Oireachtas should be cautious in prescribing mandatory sentences. An important safeguard rests in the power of the Director of Public Prosecutions to apply to the Court of Criminal Appeal to review a sentence she regards as unduly lenient. The Law Reform Commission is currently examining the law in relation to mandatory sentences and I understand that this work will be completed this year.

It would not be in keeping with the principles of judicial independence for the Executive to impose a Sentencing Council on the Judiciary. For similar reasons, the Deputy may be aware that the Law Reform Commission, after detailed study some years ago, recommended against the introduction of statutory sentencing guidelines but favoured non-statutory sentencing principles. The Superior Courts have developed a substantial body of case law setting out general principles of sentencing. Sentencing practice is also being developed by a steering committee of the judiciary which developed the Irish Sentencing Information System (ISIS) website, a pilot initiative designed to gather information about the range of sentences and other penalties that have been imposed for particular types of offences across court jurisdictions. Information on over 1,000 cases is detailed on the website and I welcome the committee's recent announcement that two JobBridge interns are to be appointed shortly in order to recommence populating the online database with information on sentencing in the criminal courts.

The Deputy may also be aware that the ISIS committee announced they are planning to recommence providing information on sentencing in relation to specific issues in which context an analysis has been published on rape sentencing prepared by the Judicial Researchers Office under the guidance of Mr. Justice Peter Charleton. I understand that seminars are also planned, including one focusing on the work of the Sentencing Council in the UK.

Finally, in September 2012, I announced a strategic review of penal policy. I have established a working group to carry out this review which will examine all aspects of penal policy and I expect the Group to report later this year.