Dáil Éireann - Volume 591 - 03 November, 2004

Written Answers. - Sentencing Policy.

  84. Ms Enright asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform if, as an alternative to the introduction of mandatory sentences, he will give serious consideration to the introduction of sentencing guidelines for the Judiciary; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27234/04]

  103. Mr. J. O’Keeffe asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform his views on the inconsistency in sentences being handed down by the courts, in particular by the lower courts; the measures he has taken to date with a view to addressing this; his plans for addressing this matter in the future; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27232/04]

  Mr. McDowell:I propose to take Questions Nos. 84 and 103 together.

The traditional approach to sentencing is for the Oireachtas to lay down by law the maximum penalty appropriate to a particular offence and for the courts, having considered all the circumstances of the case, to impose an appropriate penalty up to that maximum. This approach reflects the doctrine of the separation of powers. The Legislature lays down the possible punishment range but it is for the courts to decide the punishment taking account of all the circumstances of the case and of the offender. I would be reluctant to depart from this approach save in those rare instances where it is considered necessary to make it abundantly clear to potential criminals that the commission of particularly serious or abhorrent offences will attract a severe penalty. Provision is made in the Criminal Justice Act 1999 for the imposition of a minimum mandatory sentence of ten years’ imprisonment in respect of an offence related to the possession of drugs for the purpose of sale or supply. It is my intention to bring proposals to Government for mandatory minimum sentences for a number of existing serious firearms offences and for new offences of creation and possession of a sawn off shotgun.

The Courts and Court Officers Act 1995 enables me, as Minister, to provide funds for judicial training courses arranged by the Judiciary [1199] and, in this regard, funds are made available to the Judicial Studies Institute which was established by the Chief Justice for the purposes of judicial training. I understand that the issue of sentencing has been examined by the institute in the context of its training programme.

As regards consistency in sentencing, section 36 of the Courts (Supplemental Provisions) Act 1961 makes provision for meetings of District Court judges to discuss, inter alia, the avoidance of undue divergence in the exercise of the jurisdiction of the court and the general level of fines and penalties. While there is no similar statutory provision in the case of other courts, I understand they hold similar meetings. I should also mention that under the Criminal Justice Act 1993, the Director of Public Prosecutions may, where it appears to him that a sentence imposed on indictment is unduly lenient, apply to the Court of Criminal Appeal to review the sentence.

The complex question of sentencing policy was addressed at length by the Law Reform Commission in 1996 in a report which specifically recommended against the introduction of statutory sentencing guidelines. Its report pointed out a number of differences of opinion among members of the commission in regard to some of the recommendations in the report, which tends to underline the obvious complexities which arise in regard to sentencing policy. The issue was also addressed in the recent report of the Working Group on the Jurisdiction of the Courts. The group, while it did not make final recommendations, drew attention to possible options to promote consistency of sentencing which are being considered in my Department. The courts are in the best position to see just what is the proper sentence. They alone can take all the circumstances in a particular case into account and seek to ensure that the scales of justice are being properly balanced.