EMBARGO UNTIL: 12 MIDNIGHT SUNDAY 9 MARCH 2003
Law Reform Commission to Recommend Updated Penalties for Minor Offences
The Law Reform Commission has made recommendations in a Report published today as to the prison sentences and monetary fines which can be imposed for minor offences tried in the District Court.
The Constitution provides for a right to jury trial for all criminal offences, save where the offence is considered to be minor in nature. Minor offences correspond roughly to summary offences which are tried without a jury in the District Court. As the law currently stands, a minor offence is interpreted to mean an offence for which the penalty does not exceed 12 months imprisonment and/or a fine of €3,000.
The Report focuses primarily on the terms of imprisonment and level of fine which can be imposed for a minor offence rather than on the whole range of sentencing options available to District Court judges. It makes four principal recommendations which can be implemented without constitutional amendment. In relation to prison sentences the Commission expresses the view that, in this day and age, a term of imprisonment represents a severe personal punishment in terms of the restrictions on liberty and other freedoms. In the light of these restrictions, the position in other jurisdictions and the central importance of trial by jury in the Irish criminal process, the Commission argues that ideally a term of imprisoent of more than six months should only be visited on a person following a jury trial. While urging District Court judges to rethink the sentencing maximum along these lines, the majority of the Commission do not go so far as to recommend legislation imposing a maximum of six months on the sentence which the District Court may impose.
Secondly, the Commission proposes that District Court judges should be required to give written reasons in each case which is considered sufficiently grave to require a custodial sentence, with particular emphasis on why use is not made of the non-custodial options available. The Commission believes that this recommendation should lead to sentencing decisions which are clearer and more constructively considered. This will in any case, soon be required by virtue of the imminent incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights into domestic law.
Further, the Commission says that if the criminal justice system is to be seen to be serious in offering alternatives to custodial sentences, the District Court should be able to impose a meaningful level of fine on offenders. Accordingly, the Report recommends legislation to the effect that fines may be increased for wealthier offenders in order to ensure that fines make a similar punitive impact on all offenders (currently, the law makes provision only for reducing fines for poorer offenders).
The Report's final recommendation relates to the inadequacy of the maximum fine which may be imposed on corporate offenders in the District Court. Medium to large-sized companies are increasingly before the District Court in prosecutions for environmental, company, regulatory or health and safety offences (a significant proportion of which involve fatalities or serious injuries). Having noted the legislative provisions in other jurisdictions such as the USA, Australia and France, the Commission proposes legislation to the effect that the maximum fine for a corporation be increased to a figure of three times that permitted m the case of the same offence committed by a human being.
The Report will be launched by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform at a reception in the Law Reform Commission Offices on Monday evening, 10 March 2003. The Report follows a Consultation Paper on the topic which was published in March 2002.