Serious crimes sent for trial at District Court amid cutback fears
SERIOUS crimes previously dealt with in the Circuit Criminal Court – which attracts higher penalties – are being pursued in the district courts amid fears that budgetary cutbacks are hindering the ability of the authorities to investigate and prosecute serious offences.
The Irish Independent has learnt that there has been an increase in the number of serious crimes sent for trial to the district court if there is a guilty plea by suspects. The maximum jail term in the court, where costs are lower because there are no juries and usually fewer witnesses, is one year.
This compares with the Circuit Criminal Court where sentences regularly range up to five years and, some times, life.
The Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, whose budget fell by a fifth between 2009 and 2011, did not disclose the number of criminal cases sent to the district court for trial on foot of a guilty plea.
But the number of bills sent forward for trial at Dublin's Circuit Criminal Court has dropped by a fifth in less than a year and a third since 2007 – a drop that is understood to be under active review by the DPP.
A review of recent cases has revealed that the Office of the DPP, which did not respond to a series of questions posed by the Irish Independent, has directed that a series of serious crimes including assault, sexual assault and high-value drugs offences be dealt with in the district court if there is a guilty plea.
These include the prosecution of Dublin footballer Diarmuid Connolly who has admitted breaking a man's eye socket in an unprovoked attack in a pub.
Connolly (25) was charged with assault causing harm, which attracts a sentence of up to five years in the circuit court.
But the DPP – who can prosecute in the district court if the office considers it appropriate to do so – decided that the case should be dealt with in the district court on a guilty plea only.
Another case involved the prosecution of a middle-aged man who gave alcohol to a 13-year-old girl before sexually assaulting her.
In recent weeks, district court judges have refused to hear a number of cases, which they have deemed too serious for trial in the district court – despite DPP directions.
They include the prosecution of Sibyl Montague (33), an award-winning artist who pleaded guilty to fraudulently claiming more than €43,000 from the Department of Social Protection (DSP) over a four-year period while resident outside of the State.
The DPP indicated the matter could be dealt with at district court level if there was a guilty plea.
But Judge Miriam Malone deemed the case too serious for the district court and Ms Montague will now be dealt with before the Circuit Criminal Court where the potential fines and penalties imposed can be much heavier.
Last week at Tallaght District Court, Judge Anthony Halpin refused to deal with a case where three men are alleged to have robbed a 16-year-old boy.
The DPP again directed the case be heard in the district court. But Judge Halpin, who refused after the men's solicitor asked him to deal with the case at district court level, said the trio should "if found guilty, at least face five years in prison".
Last year, DPP Claire Loftus said that she was increasingly concerned that it would not be possible for her office to sustain the overall rate of work done in previous years.
"The office has made clear previously that our resources are fully stretched, having regard to the increasingly large and complex files which we are required to consider and subsequently present in court when a decision is made to prosecute," said Ms Loftus in her first annual report as DPP after her appointment in November 2011.
The annual budget of the DPP fell by 18pc from €44.78m to €36.77m between 2009 and 2011, the latest years for which figures are available.
But there has, since the onset of the recession, been an increase in the number of files sent to the Office of the DPP, which handled more than 16,000 files in 2011.
Gardai have also had their budget reduced from a record €1.4bn in 2007 to €1.3bn last year, with another €39m cut this year.
The Department of Justice, which funds the DPP and gardai, said there were many factors which can affect the level of prosecutions, including underlying levels of reported crime, as well as the availability of alternatives to prosecution.
"These include the penalty points and fixed charge notice system (which has expanded considerably in recent years) as well as adult and youth cautions.
"All crimes that are reported to An Garda Siochana are fully investigated and where evidence of criminal liability is available prosecutions are brought, where this is warranted and subject to the directions and guidelines set independently by the DPP."