Wednesday 22 October 2014

Anthony Lyons' jail term restores our faith in sentencing for sexual assaults

Published 01/08/2014 | 02:30

Anthony Lyons, pictured arriving at the Four Courts yesterday. Photo: Collins Courts
Anthony Lyons, pictured arriving at the Four Courts yesterday. Photo: Collins Courts

Are you getting home safely? These are the last words, or words to that effect, that businessman Anthony Lyon's victim heard before she was rugby tackled to the ground and subjected to a violent sexual assault. That assault, in the wee small hours, may have graduated to a much more serious one were it not for the heroic intervention of a passer-by who heard the woman's cries for help.

The victim was doing what so many of us women do: walking home after a night out.

Or rather, what I used to do before I started covering sexual offences in the courts and speaking to abuse victims, some of them close friends who have been assaulted - and worse.

Such is my use of taxis late at night, it would be cheaper for me to buy shares in a taxi company. It is wrong, but it is a small price to pay for my safety.

It is the right, if not the expectation, of every man, woman and child to be able to walk safely on a public street at any time of the day or night.

But as the Court of Criminal Appeal (CCA) noted yesterday when it ruled that a 6 month jail term - already served by Lyons - was unduly lenient, the kind of sexual attack perpetrated by him instils fear in every woman who walks in a quiet public area.

Public confidence in the investigation, prosecution, conviction and sentencing of sexual crimes has taken a hammering in recent years, invariably when unduly lenient sentences have been handed down.

This is unfortunate as, despite a high attrition or drop out rate of cases that actually come to trial, Ireland has quite a high conviction rate and fairly hefty jail sentences for sexual offenders.

The small handful of unduly lenient sentences inflicts a disproportionate amount of harm on public confidence in the administration of justice. But that is why we have the safety net of an appeal court to correct errors and re-shape the law.

The impact on the victim, who separately agreed a €200,000 compensation settlement with Lyons, is traumatic. The CCA said that she is "emotionally devastated" by the event. "Her integrity as a person, physical and emotional, was violated," said the three judge court.

We all owe her a huge debt of gratitude for staying the course and contributing to a restatement of the law that should go a long way to restoring faith in the justice system when it comes to sexual crimes.

The CCA ruling is significant not just because it saw the immediate return of Lyons to jail to serve another 18 months -or 14 months with remission.

It is critical as it has restated in the strongest possible terms, the intrinsic seriousness of sexual violence.

Earlier this week Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist and writer, caused a storm when he mused, on Twitter, on the differences between "mild" date rape and "stranger rape", the latter which he believed is "worse".

The reality is, however, that there is a spectrum of sexual assault, just as there is a spectrum of ordinary assaults or killings. And, unpalatable as it is, the law must distinguish between them for the purpose of prosecution and, on conviction, sentence.

Lyons was prosecuted by the DPP and convicted of sexual assault.

He was convicted after a jury rejected his defence of involuntary intoxication: having initially denied the attack to gardai, he later blamed it on prescribed cough medication.

The court said it was not sentencing somebody for an offence which can be bracketed with, or put on the same level, as serial child sex abuse, rape, manslaughter or even murder.

The starting point for the court was that sexual assault, divided by law into simple and aggravated sexual assault, is always a serious offence. Moreover, said former Chief Justice John Murray, sexual assault is a crime that merits a significant custodial sentence where the offence itself is a serious one.

The CCA also addressed the thorny issue of compensation in sexual assault cases. Since 1993, judges are allowed to issue statutory compensation orders instead of or in addition to dealing with a serious offender in any other way.

When Lyons was sentenced, he was ordered to pay his victim €75,000. But this, combined with 5 1/2 years of a 6 year jail term suspended, raised howls of protest that the legal system allows those with means to buy themselves out of jail.

The CCA , which did not consider the €200,000 settlement as a mitigating factor, said the trial judge applied the law and no more when he issued the €75,000 order.

But the court said there can never be any question of the compensation order law being applied in a way that suggests there is one law for the rich and one for the poor. It went further, describing the law as "unsatisfactory" and one that should perhaps be reviewed so that these orders are made in addition to a sentence.

The court also allayed fears that civil claims could impact on criminal proceedings. Judge Murray stated that the fact that a person is exposed, on conviction, to a potential civil claim, is not a factor which is taken into account in sentencing as it is a separate civil liability independent of a person's criminal liability.

There is much to digest in the court's ruling, not least the conduct and role of the media in reporting cases such as Anthony Lyons.

Aspects of the media coverage were deemed sensationalist and, in some cases, plain wrong.

As journalists, we have a duty to inform the public and hold powerful people and institutions to account. But we also have a duty to ensure, especially in criminal law matters, that we accurately report the circumstances of and nature of an offence.

Irish Independent

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