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Question

68. Deputy Jonathan O'Brien asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality if she will consider legislating for the introduction of a sentencing council. [40423/16]

Answer

Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Frances Fitzgerald): As the Deputy will appreciate, judges are independent in the matter of sentencing, as in other matters concerning the exercise of judicial functions, subject only to the Constitution and the law. In regard to sentencing, the approach of the Oireachtas has generally been to specify in law a maximum penalty for an offence, so that a court, having considered all the circumstances of a case, may impose an appropriate penalty up to that maximum. The court is required to impose a sentence which is proportionate not only to the crime but to the individual offender, in that process identifying where on the sentencing range the particular case should lie and then applying any mitigating factors which may be present. An important safeguard rests in the power of the Director of Public Prosecutions to apply to the Court of Appeal to review a sentence she regards as unduly lenient.
The Superior Courts have developed a substantial body of case law setting out general principles of sentencing. Sentencing practice is also being developed by a steering committee of the judiciary which developed the Irish Sentencing Committee website, a pilot initiative designed to gather information about the range of sentences and other penalties that have been imposed for particular types of offences across court jurisdictions. This system is being developed as a valuable tool not only for members of the judiciary but also for lawyers, researchers and those concerned with the needs of victims and their families, and I very much support the initiative led by the judiciary through the Judicial Research Office in undertaking the detailed work of gathering and providing information on sentencing via the website.
The report of the Working Group on the Strategic Review of Penal Policy, published in July 2014, considered the issue of developing sentencing guidelines. However, the majority of the Review Group took the view that the primary role of developing sentencing guidelines is the responsibility of the judiciary and does not lie in bringing forward detailed statutory based guidelines. It might also be noted that a Sentencing Council was not advocated by the Law Reform Commission in its Report on Mandatory Sentencing which was published in June 2013.
The Deputy may wish to note that in 2014, the Court of Criminal Appeal issued a number of judgments which addressed the question of sentencing and which acknowledged the many factors that can be considered in individual cases which undermine the usefulness of direct comparisons between one case and another. Nonetheless, every effort to promote consistency should be made and in this respect it is appropriate for the courts to provide guidance on sentencing matters.
A Judicial Council Bill is included in the current legislative programme which provides for a range of matters including matters relating to developing schemes for judicial education and training. It is also envisaged that the Bill will contain mechanisms designed to assist in the collation and dissemination of sentencing information. Easy accessibility to such information would clearly be of benefit to courts when it comes to achieving consistency in imposing sentences.