The judiciary has been accused of permitting court costs to |influence sentencing after a |judge voiced frustration at suspects who opt for jury trials when there is “overwhelming” evidence against them.
District judge Barney McElholm said that any defendant who chooses to go on trial before a jury when there is a vast amount of evidence stacked against them deserves all they get should they be convicted.
His comments come just days after another judge jailed a woman for three months for stealing a pair of £10 jeans after she elected for a Crown Court trial and was found guilty.
Alison Hewitt (27) could instead have chosen for her case to be heard in the magistrates’ court where costs are significantly lower and sentences more lenient.
At Londonderry Magistrates Court yesterday, Mr McElholm said that anyone who elected for a jury trial “in the face of overwhelming evidence gets all they deserve if convicted”.
“It is a gross waste of public funds”, he added.
Mr McElholm voiced his opinion when he was told that one of two men who both deny an assault charge had opted for a jury trial.
The other man will contest the charge in the magistrates court.
In a separate case before |the same court, a woman who admitted stealing goods valued at £12.99 was given a community service order by Mr McElholm in recognition of her early admission.
“She is not costing the public purse something in the region |of £20,000 and for that she |gets maximum credit,” he said. But Assembly justice committee member David McNarry said he finds this attitude worrying.
“Are we to say that someone should be punished more because their case costs more?
“This could affect the rights of people to choose. I find it absurd, completely incredible,” the UUP MLA said.
He added: “So much for the judicial system. Does one now need to know who the judge is going to be in a case before they can decide which court they want their case heard in?
“The law is the law and everyone has a right to go for a jury trial if they so wish.
“I thought people were innocent until proven guilty. This is extremely worrying.
“You cannot put a cost on anyone’s right to liberty.”
SDLP justice spokesman Alban Maginness said it is a difficult balancing act for the judiciary.
“To elect to have a case heard before a jury is a statutory right, a constitutional right and of course it involves additional time, effort and expense,” the justice committee member said.
“It is only right for a judge to warn defendants about such waste of time and money where there is no defence.
“But at the same time we have to balance that against a |situation where maybe a case is |in a grey area and there is a |reasonable defence.
“If that is the situation then that person is entitled to go for a jury trial and try to persuade a jury as to their innocence.
“You don’t want to deter people whose good standing in the community is in danger |by conviction.
“It is up to the good advice of legal advisers to indicate what is the best way to deal with cases,” he added.