Row after the biggest menace on our roads avoids jail
Ulster's worst driver steered into a major legal row last night over his ballooning record of car crime.
Belfast pensioner Raymond Paul was convicted of his 212th and 213th driving offences yesterday - but walked free from court.
The 67-year-old was caught driving while disqualified for the 48th time earlier this year, while in the middle of a 25-year ban that is supposed to keep him from getting behind the wheel.
He was picked up by police close to his home at Heath Lodge Square on June 9, weeks after he'd been freed from jail for the same offence.
And despite spending most of this year in prison, he's managed to add more than 25 offences to his record this year alone.
Yesterday, Crown Court Judge Des Marrinan sentenced Paul to another year in jail, but suspended the sentence for two years - saying he hoped the threat of another jail term would better protect the public.
The judge indicated that sentences available to him are inadequate for dealing with the "worst driving record" he has seen in his court.
He noted that it has been two years since another Northern Ireland judge called for a tougher sentence for people caught driving while disqualified - saying it was "astonishing [the call for action] has not been heeded by those in authority".
But the MLA in charge of the Assembly committee overseeing road safety said he was astonished that Judge Marrinan had allowed Paul to walk free.
And the Northern Ireland Office said sentences here are already tougher than those available in England and Wales.
Judge Marrinan said although he was suspending the term, he wanted to make it "absolutely clear" that Paul deserved to go to prison but that the public might be better protected by suspending the term.
But Environment Committee chairman Patsy McGlone said: "This is ridiculous to the point of being disastrous.
"It's a ridiculous situation for someone with that litany of offences to get a suspended sentence."
The SDLP MLA added: "The [length of available sentences] is definitely a major issue for the judiciary and the law.
"What message does that send out to every other disqualified driver - come before the courts and you'll get a slap on the wrist?"
A spokeswoman for the NIO said the one-year maximum sentence available in Ulster is already "twice the level of that in England and Wales".
She added: "We will of course consider the judge's comments in detail."
Yesterday Judge Marrinan slapped 10 years on the 25-year ban Paul is already serving - meaning he would not be legally entitled to drive until he is 85.
Paul was also fined £100 for driving with no insurance.