As the Deputy will be aware, 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 regard to sentencing, the approach of the Oireachtas has generally been to specify in law a maximum penalty for an offence, so that a court, having considered all the circumstances of a case, may 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 also 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. An important safeguard rests in the power of the Director of Public Prosecutions to apply to the Court of Appeal to review a sentence she regards as unduly lenient.
The Superior Courts have developed a substantial body of case law setting out general principles of sentencing. As the Deputy is aware, sentencing practice was also developed by a steering committee of the judiciary which developed the Irish sentencing information system, 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.
Looking to the future, the Deputy will also be aware that the Judicial Council Bill is currently awaiting Committee Stage in Seanad Éireann. In its published form, the Bill provides for the establishment of a Sentencing Information Committee which will be responsible for the collation of sentencing information and the dissemination of that information. To facilitate it in carrying out its functions, it is envisaged that the Committee will have access to court documents relating to criminal proceedings. In addition to the collation and dissemination of sentencing decisions and information on those decisions, it will be empowered to conduct research and organise conferences, seminars and other events. As a general principle, the information will not disclose the names of the parties to the proceedings covered by the decisions. However, an exception will be made to this principle where disclosure is required by a judge in relation to proceedings before him or her or where it is necessary to facilitate submissions to the court by a party’s legal representative in relation to the sentence to be imposed.
A set of amendments aimed at transforming the Sentencing Information Committee into a Sentencing Guidelines and Information Committee has been developed within my Department and will form part of a package of amendments to the Bill which will be brought forward once Committee Stage is scheduled.