Sentencing guidelines plans could be frustrated by ‘limited’ data

Sentencing guidelines plans could be frustrated by 'limited' data

Professor Cyrus Tata

The Judicial Council’s plans to develop landmark sentencing guidelines for Irish judges could be frustrated by a lack of sentencing data, particularly for cases dealt with at the District Court, a new report has warned.

Professor Cyrus Tata of the Centre for Law, Crime & Justice at Strathclyde Law School in Scotland was last year appointed by the Judicial Council to lead an international team of experts to examine the quality of available data about sentencing practices in Ireland and around the world.

The Judicial Council’s sentencing guidelines and information committee (SGIC) has been tasked under the Judicial Council Act 2019 with drawing up a range of sentencing guidelines for particular offences.

But the 60-page first interim report by researchers states that the sentencing data available in Ireland has “profound limitations”, including “the lack of a large-scale, offence-specific database, or an annual release of key sentencing indicators, as is the case in some other jurisdictions”.

“The limited data is problematic because it is only when reliable information is available that useful guidelines (that are likely to be respected by trial courts) can be drawn up,” it states.

“For example, guidelines for certain offences, such as defilement and other forms of child sexual abuse, cannot realistically be drawn up without a thorough examination of the many variables that occur in such cases – as was effectively recognised by the Court of Appeal in McD [2021] IECA 31.”

Although the problems cover all Irish courts, the report says the limits “are particularly acute in the District Courts”, which it notes has the power to impose up to two years’ imprisonment in certain cases, adding:

“A rational and coherent sentencing system is … just as important in the District Court as in the other trial courts. However, there are relatively infrequent opportunities for the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court to issue sentencing guidance on the cases and issues commonly encountered in the District Courts. Thus, quite understandably, court issued guidance has tended not to focus on the District Courts. For these reasons, the sentencing guidelines and information committee may wish to address information gaps at the level of the District Court sentencing in particular.”

The SGIC provided the researchers with a comprehensive table containing a brief summary of over 800 judgments in the Court of Appeal, with links to each judgment, which has also been published.

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