Law Reform Comission issues Consultation Paper on Penalties for Minor Offences
The Commission has a continuing interest in the reform of the law relating to criminal sanctions and sentencing, and has already published papers on sentencing generally and the indexation of fines. This new Paper examines in particular the adequacy of penalties for the tens of thousands of offences tried in the District Court.
The Constitution states that no person can be tried on a crlmlnal offence without a jury. The main exceptions are "minor offences" (in the language of Article 38 of the Constitution) which can be tried in the District Court without a jury. The rationale behind this is to allow less serious cases, attracting a less severe punishment, to be dealt with as expeditiously as possible, thus ensuring that the right to jury trial is maintained for appropriate cases, and the wheels of justice run smoothly. However, the Commission is of the opinion that due to the definition that has been given to the term "minor offence", the present District Court system does not achieve this objective satisfactorily.
The Commission points to two main inadequacies in this system which need to be, and can be, redressed without Constitutional amendment. First, the Commission believes that it is unjust that an individual can be imprisoned for as much as tweleve months without having the option of a jury trial. This is particularly so when it is compared with the fact that where the offender is fined rather than imprisoned, the maximum fine which may be imposed without a jury triaI is only €3,000. Secondly, this restriction on fines means that the District Court is prevented from imposing upon a medium or large company an adequate fine, in light of its means. At a time when, to take one example, breaches of the Health and Safety Regulations have led to the deaths of a number of building workers, this is an urgent topic.
In examining these deficiencies in the penal system the Commission carried out a comparative study of several other jurisdictions - England and Wales, Australia, New Zealand and the United States of America. This accumulated wisdom has led the Commission to conclude that there is a general tendency to favour limiting the length of a prison sentence which may be imposed without jury trial. It is also clear that in these jurisdictions a prison sentence is held to be a more severe penalty than a fine. Furthermore, higher fines for corporations than for human beings are commonplace in these jurisdictions.
The Consultation Paper makes several provisional recommendations which include:-
1. a clear statutory headline reducing the possible maximum prison sentence for minor offences to six months;
2. the requirement that a District Judge give very brief written reasons for any decision to impose a prison term rather than a non-custodial sentence;
3. an increase, in accordance with the principle of egality of impact, in the maximum fine for corporations to a figure of three times that permitted for human being, to take account of the fact that a corporation, unlike a human person, cannot be imprisoned;
4. the authorisation of higher monetary fines in the case of wealthier offenders (at present, the law only authorises lower fines for poorer offenders);
The document just published is a Consultation Paper. The Commission now invites further submissions from members of the public before the 28th June 2002. Following this the Commission will hold a seminar bringing together experts and practitioners in the field with a view to making concrete recommendations in a Report on this subject.
For further info ation contact Philip Hannon, Gibney Communications, 01 6610402 or 087 2371841