Belfast Telegraph

Justice system must be sensitive to victims

Editor's Viewpoint

It is easy to understand the anguish of Seamus Armstrong at the decision to release the teenager who killed his wife on the exact anniversary of her death. He had asked the probation service to change the date of the release but that request was turned down.

The probation service did nothing wrong; it said its hands were tied and the teenager, Gary Lewis, was due to be released two days ago and must be set free.

But this is an example of where the workings of the justice system can seem very cold and calculated from the perspective of the victims.

Wednesday was a very poignant day for the Armstrong family.

Seamus's wife Valerie, a mother-of-three, died on that date a year ago after being struck by a scrambler motorcycle ridden by Lewis.

The teenager was sentenced to 18 months in prison but served only four because of time spent on remand and remission.

That may seem a very short period of incarceration for causing a death by dangerous driving, but judges have to abide by sentencing guidelines which take into account issues like a guilty plea and remorse of the defendant.

Indeed, the judge in the case touched on that point. He said: "Human life, the life of Valerie Armstrong, can't be restored nor its loss measured by a custodial sentence. No term of months or years can take away their (the family's) anguish."

That is very true, for no matter how long any defendant is jailed, the bereaved suffer a lengthier sentence, one of life without their loved one.

The first anniversary of any death is difficult for the bereaved, and especially so in this case. Valerie was only 35 when she died. Her young children are still upset at the loss of their mother and her husband feels the family's grief is compounded by the release of Lewis on this date.

Of course, anyone who is jailed should not serve longer than the courts decide. However, should the system be so inflexible that a release date cannot be moved by the slightest margin to ensure it does not clash with a particularly emotive time?

Justice must be determined by logic and reason but that can make the legal process appear clinical, while the grief of the bereaved is raw and emotional.

It is difficult for either side to fully appreciate the dilemmas faced by the other. Surely compassion is also part of justice and should be allowed to intrude as some stage.

Belfast Telegraph

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