Monday 10 December 2018

Judges accused of being 'lenient' in killer driving cases

Report finds weak sentencing in a third of court convictions

Stock photo: PA
Stock photo: PA
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

Judges have failed to impose higher sentences for dangerous driving causing death or serious injury, despite being given the power to do so more than two decades ago.

An analysis report prepared for a Courts Service sentencing committee found sentences in over a third of cases it examined were "lenient".

The unpublished report, seen by the Irish Independent, said that while judges had been strong in condemning dangerous driving, sentences needed to reflect the severity of those comments.

It said the maximum penalty for dangerous driving causing death or serious injury was increased from five years to ten in the Road Traffic Act 1994.

The change was a signal from the Oireachtas that sentences for the offence were not sufficiently stiff. Despite this, the average custodial sentence imposed remained under three-and-a-half years.

The report examined 60 cases in detail, which were finalised by the courts between January 2010 and May 2014.

It classified the outcome in 35pc as "lenient". In these cases, sentences varied from being fully suspended to one year in prison.

It described the outcome of 43pc of the cases as "median", resulting in sentences of between 15 months and three-and-a-half years.

Just 22pc of the sentences handed down were categorised as "severe", with terms ranging from four to seven years.

The report said the cases surveyed sometimes reflected the views of judges that an incident of dangerous driving causing death or serious injury was a tragedy, not just for the victim and their families, but also for the accused. "The court sometimes feels that it is limited in righting this wrong," the report said.

"This may be influenced by the fact that dangerous driving causing death or serious harm is not a crime of specific intent but instead a negligent action leading to disastrous consequences."

But the report suggested judges should be imposing stiffer sentences. "Whereas the clock cannot be turned back, it may be argued that a stronger attitude to breaches of this nature may be required," it said.

The report also noted that while judges regularly made comments condemning dangerous drivers, this did not necessarily translate into stiff sentences.

"Whereas judicial statements on dangerous driving have been firm and uncompromising in rightly condemning a practice that puts every road user in danger, sentences perhaps need to reflect the severity of those comments," the report stated.

"Lives and health depend on individuals obeying road safety policy and having regard to other road users.

"Above all, dangerous driving is an attack on how society works in an important and moral sphere of human activity: modern transport. Accidents invariably happen but dangerous driving is a gross departure from a required norm. Dangerous driving is not an unstoppable, blameless encounter."

The most common factor found in the "lenient" cases was a guilty plea.

In the vast majority of cases where suspended sentences were imposed the driver had not been speeding or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Instead the accidents were attributed to loss of control of the vehicle, driver error or misjudgement.

In one of the cases examined, where the driver was under the influence of a large quantity of alcohol, the judge handed down a suspended sentence on the basis the offence was "so out of character" for the accused.

The disclosure comes at a time of considerable debate over sentencing and renewed calls for sentencing guidelines.

Recent statistics highlighted by RTÉ showed significant variations and suggested that where an accused is tried can have a bearing on the severity of the punishment.

In 2016 in Cork city, 15pc of all orders in dangerous driving cases were to jail the accused, while none of the 115 orders made by courts in Kerry in connection with the same offence led to imprisonment. Some 11pc of orders in drug cases in Cork city were for custodial sentences, compared to just 1pc in several other counties.

Irish Independent

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