Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Rare but necessary move from judge

This newspaper sometimes has criticised the judiciary and legal system. We have voiced a widely held concern over the extremely high earnings of some lawyers, especially from the public purse.

We have also raised frustrations over how victims sometimes fail to get proper justice for a variety of reasons, from failure to prosecute to opaque laws and legal guidelines. The old adage of justice not only being done, but being seen to be done often seems to go by the board.

But in this instance we have to applaud Lord Justice Sir Paul Girvan for his intervention in the public debate over the sentence handed down to one of the men found guilty of murdering PSNI Constable Stephen Carroll. John Paul Wootton, who was 17 at the time of the murder, was told he would have to spend at least 14 years in jail, a sentence denounced as too lenient by the dead policeman's widow and many others.

In an rare move for a judge, Lord Justice Girvan, who had presided at the murder trial, called for an overhaul of the sentencing policy here, saying the sentencing guidelines needed reconsideration, particularly in the case of a terrorist murder of a police officer. He pointed out that judges are bound by rules when it comes to passing sentence. His comments show that it is possible for a judge to take note of public disquiet while maintaining the vital independence of the judiciary. The Director of Public Prosecutions also deserves credit for speedily referring the case to the Court of Appeal on the grounds that the sentence may be too lenient.

The legal system cannot react in a knee-jerk fashion to individual cases and no one should expect it to. Legislation and legal rules should evolve over time and with due consideration. Yet the system is there for the protection of the public and they should be kept informed of how the system operates and have contentious decisions explained as by Lord Justice Girvan. He has done a signal favour to his profession as well as the public.

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