Belfast Telegraph

Top judge vows to streamline sentencing for violent crimes

By Deborah McAleese

Guidelines for sentencing violent offenders and environmental criminals are to be exhaustively reviewed, the province’s most senior judge has pledged.

Setting out his blueprint at the opening of the new legal year for strengthening public confidence in the justice system, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan admitted that the sentencing of offenders is “a difficult exercise”.

He said an individual judge is bound by the maximum and|minimum sentence set down in law and by the sentencing framework provided by the Government.

Judges can also take into|account sentencing guidelines previously issued by the Court of Appeal, but the Lord Chief Justice said there are areas where explicit guidelines or guidance are needed.

Identified by the Sentencing Group established last year, Sir Declan said the priority areas currently being considered are cases of domestic violence, serious sexual offences, environmental crime, attacks on the vulnerable and people trafficking.

Laying down fresh guidelines could help ensure greater consistency in sentences handed down by different courts, strengthen public confidence and reduce costs by providing guidance faster.

Sir Declan told an audience at the Royal Courts of Justice yesterday that judges deal with more than 100,000 cases each year, with over 57,000 defendants dealt with in the Crown, magistrate and youth courts in 2009.

The Lord Chief Justice said that while judges may not get it right every time, the vast array and number of cases they deal with should be recognised — as should the fact that they invariably do make the correct decisions.

This is the first time a Lord Chief Justice has made a public address at the opening of the new court term — highlighting Sir|Declan’s desire to keep the public better informed and increase|public confidence in the judicial system.

The Lord Chief Justice said the public need to understand what judges cannot do.

“For example, we do not make or comment on policy or|legislation to increase maximum sentences. That is for the|Assembly,” he said.

He also stressed, on a number of occasions, the importance of|ensuring the independence of the courts.

“An independent judiciary is a critical element of every democracy ... it means that an independent and impartial judiciary is not responsible to the Assembly or the Executive. But the judges must apply the law. They cannot act arbitrarily and there is a proportionate system of appeals in place by way of safeguard to ensure this. And, of course, it is for the|Assembly to determine whether the law should be changed,” he said.

Sir Declan added that he|believes it is important for the|judiciary to have “appropriate” engagement with others with|responsibilities for delivering the adminsitrative of justice.

“That is in part to ensure that they understand the concept of|independence, but it is also a recognition that judges cannot operate in isolation in terms of management of the criminal and civil justice systems.”

He also revealed that the|courts are looking at the|potential for greater use of mediation, or alternative dispute resolution, in appropriate civil cases.

The early resolution of|differences through mediation is potentially less damaging to|relationships, he argued.

Emphasising his plans for the coming year, Sir Declan added: “I will continue to seek to build|relationships, to progress the work that we have identified and begun, for example on sentencing, and seek to build confidence in our system of justice of which I think we should be proud.”

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