Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: So, what price is a life in Northern Ireland?

Can it be right that killers here spend, on average, 10 years less in jail than those in England and Wales, asks Fionola Meredith

Enda Dolan
Enda Dolan
David Lee Stewart knocked down and killed student Enda Dolan in October 2014

Do lost lives count for less in Northern Ireland? It was reported this week that the average minimum term handed down by our courts in life sentences for murder was almost 10 years lower than in England and Wales last year. That's quite a disparity. The difference of an entire decade, in the average length of time that killers are recommended to serve, on each side of the Irish Sea.

Figures obtained by the BBC showed that the average minimum tariff for murder in Northern Ireland in 2017, before a prisoner was considered for parole, was 11 years and four months, compared to 21 years and one month in England and Wales.

This represents a fall of three years from the Northern Ireland figure in 2016.

The statistics leap about dramatically from year to year: 15 years was the Northern Ireland average in 2013, which then dropped to 11.5 years in 2014.

But when you see that the lowest figure in England and Wales in the five-year period between 2013 and 2017 was 20 years and 10 months, the contrast remains stark.

So, what is going on? Are Northern Irish murderers treated more leniently than English or Welsh murderers? Do killers get an easier ride here, rather than in other parts of the UK?

Not quite. A spokesperson for the Lord Chief Justice's office responded to the findings by saying that the number of murder cases in Northern Ireland was significantly smaller than in England and Wales, which apparently "explains why there is so much variation in average tariffs year-on-year in this jurisdiction".

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The spokesperson also said that the tariffs depended on "specific factual circumstances in each case" and there were "many examples of tariffs of 15 years or more being imposed in this jurisdiction where premeditated murders are carried out with weapons by persons of bad character".

These answers help, but only up to a point. The fact that proven killers are, on average, consistently serving shorter sentences here than in England and Wales is undeniable.

The average sentence for manslaughter in Northern Ireland was also significantly lower than in England and Wales last year.

Sentencing, both in Northern Ireland and beyond, is subject to strict guidelines and is rightly a matter for the independent judiciary. But as Victim Support NI has observed: "Some victims tell us that they do not feel the sentence fully reflects the impact the crime has had on their lives and this leads to a sense that justice has not been done."

The pain of believing that a loved one's squandered, irreplaceable life has been treated with insufficient gravity by the courts must be immense.

There is the horror of the loss, which is then compounded by a sentence which, in their eyes, falls far short of a commensurate response.

If there was increased transparency and accountability when it comes to determining the "specific factual circumstances", which are used to allocate the appropriate tariff, it could be highly beneficial to victims.

What we really need is our own sentencing council, similar to the body set up in England and Wales in 2010, "to promote greater transparency and consistency in sentencing, while maintaining the independence of the judiciary".

As an independent, non-departmental public body of the Ministry of Justice, one of the sentencing council's key functions is to raise awareness among the public "regarding the realities of sentencing", as well as to develop public confidence in sentencing and the criminal justice system.

It is also responsible for considering the impact of sentencing decisions on victims.

Of course, we do have mechanisms in place in Northern Ireland for when sentences plainly do not fit the severity of the crime. For example, the paralytically drunk and drugged driver who knocked down and killed Queen's University student Enda Dolan in 2014 was originally sentenced to seven years - three-and-a-half years in prison and the same on licence.

Following a public outcry and a subsequent appeal, the time that the driver, David Lee Stewart, would spend in jail, was increased by one year.

Some cases linger painfully in the mind, longer after they have left the headlines. Enda's story was one of those. He was only 18 when his young, talented life was snuffed out in an instant by a boozed-up waster at the wheel.

The details were awful. Enda had just started studying architecture and he was heading back to his halls at Queen's Elms on the Malone Road.

Stewart's car mounted the kerb and hit him so hard that the young man was flipped on to the roof of the vehicle, breaking his neck, but Stewart kept on driving for another 800 metres before stopping.

Judge Kerr, who was responsible for the initial sentence, told the court that "no sentence can ever reflect the pain and suffering of all who knew and loved this young man". But the brevity of the sentencing clearly added to the Dolan family's already unimaginable pain. Their agony was magnified by a helpless sense of anger at the legal system and its apparent disregard for victims' families.

I remember the Dolans saying that they were suffering their own life sentence: "The missed family celebrations, the Christmases, the family holidays, the 21st birthday he won't have, the exams that he never sat, the graduation never attended, the engagement, the wedding, the grandchildren that will never be."

I don't know if the extra year added to Stewart's short time in prison made any difference to the Dolans in their terrible grief. It still seems such a brief sentence for the taking of a young life.

But I do know that Enda's father, Peter, has called for the review of sentencing in Northern Ireland - which has been dragging on for years now - to be fully completed.

Last year, Mr Dolan told this paper that there had been numerous cases where the people involved received poor and inadequate sentences. He said that having to appeal the "unduly lenient" sentence in Enda's case added "extra stress" on his family and that he would like to see a minimum tariff of 20 years to life for causing death by dangerous driving.

In the arcane world of the judiciary, a life sentence does not mean life. We know that. But surely it must approximate, at some level that we can all understand, to the nature of the crime committed.

Our confidence in the criminal justice system depends on it.

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