Justice Minister: “grandstanding and chest beating seen in the Chamber” on mandatory sentences call

As the BBC reports, yesterday in the Northern Ireland Assembly, by 44 votes to 41, MLAs called on the NI Justice Minister, Alliance Party leader David Ford, to “introduce legislation to impose mandatory minimum prison sentences for people who are found guilty of violent crimes against older or vulnerable people”.

The motion was agreed despite opposition from the NI Justice Minister and a number of MLAs with legal backgrounds.  The NI Justice Minister also pointed out that, “officials from my Department are in discussions with the Justice Committee on draft proposals for ways in which transparency, consistency and an understanding of sentencing practice might be delivered in a manner that helps to promote public confidence.”

Here’s an extract from the NI Justice Minister’s speech during the debate

I consider it important that the discretion of the judiciary is maintained in such cases. Mandatory minimum sentences of imprisonment allow no room for discretion, a point that was recognised by a number of Members who spoke. I think that that was everyone on this side of the House and Mr Hussey, although, for some bizarre reason, at the end of his speech, he said that he intended to support a motion that he had largely spoken against.

Mandatory sentences make no allowance for the exceptional case, and there is always the possibility of such cases. I confess that I was thinking of potential examples. However, yesterday, Jim Allister told me of the example of the paedophile pensioner, which he gave the House this afternoon. It is probably fair to say that, if Jim Allister were described as, “A ‘Guardian’-reading, sandal-wearing liberal”, he would feel a little discomfited. Such a description would not worry me but would worry him. Yet, Mr Allister, speaking from his clear, practical experience in the law courts put his finger on a precise example of why mandatory sentences are wrong. To suggest that the father in that case should be subjected to the same minimum sentence as a thug who assaults and abuses old people is absolutely ridiculous and was recognised as such by the silence in which he was heard before DUP Members desperately tried to think of something to heckle him with. We have the clear example cited, and we have heard others, including Mr McCartney, cite research from other jurisdictions that shows that mandatory minimum sentences can have unintended consequences. Indeed, Mr Allister’s example would have been exact proof of that. That is why I and, I believe, the majority of the House have supported the concept of judicial discretion.

Members referred to sentencing guidelines. Of course, sentencing guidelines were raised as an issue in the Hillsborough Castle talks last year. At the time, some of us considered that a fairly formal mechanism was needed. However, there has been acknowledgement from different sides of the House today of the significant work being done by the Lord Chief Justice in developing informal sentencing guidelines and of his willingness to engage with laypeople involved in that process. Sir Declan Morgan’s public consultation on the priorities for sentencing guidelines shows that he is in touch with public opinion. I welcome and support the work that he is doing. Some of the detailed issues around, for example, lay involvement, must be worked through in detail. However, it is absolutely clear that work is being done by the judiciary that complements the work being done by the Department, and Sir Declan Morgan’s work is to be welcomed as a positive step forward.

The key issue for me is that we reassure vulnerable citizens that we promote safer communities and see that good work is done by police officers on the ground to ensure that criminals are caught. The knowledge that people will be caught and given an appropriate sentence by the judiciary is the deterrent — not the grandstanding and chest beating seen in the Chamber this afternoon — and it leads to judicial sentences that are appropriate to the facts of the case. In response to Mr McIlveen, Mr Allister highlighted the issue of an appeal against inadequate sentences, which is being looked at as part of the Attorney General’s work.

I am committed, as the Programme for Government demonstrates, to continuing to work to ensure that crimes against older and vulnerable people are minimised, that offenders convicted of such crimes continue to be sentenced appropriately and that older and vulnerable people are able to live their life free from the fear of crime. The approach of the Programme for Government is to explore the options and determine the need for appropriate legislation, with the kind of flexibility that Peter Weir talked about, as opposed to the inflexible demand for mandatory sentences that he and his party colleagues have been talking about. [added emphasis]

But, despite “the grandstanding and chest beating seen in the Chamber”, the resolution itself is not binding on the Minister…

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