A former justice minister has expressed ‘frustration’ on behalf of a family bereaved by a drunk driver after she found that a review covering lenient sentencing began a full year after she had announced it.
Independent MLA Claire Sugden, who lost her ministerial post when the assembly collapsed last year, was speaking after taking a grieving Co Tyrone father to meet senior Department of Justice (DOJ) officials for an update on the review of sentencing policy.
Peter Dolan had lobbied her for stiffer sentences after a driver high on drink and drugs got only four-and-a-half years in jail for killing his 18-year-old son Enda in Belfast in 2014.
Ms Sugden told the News Letter: “The sentencing review was announced in July 2016 and was supposed to take 18 months, taking in all types of sentencing.
“I would have expected the review to be at its conclusion by now. My understanding is that the department did not start the review until a year after it was announced.”
In May 2017 DOJ advised the News Letter that its review of sentencing “is now underway”. However according to Ms Sugden, it would not have actually started until two months after DOJ had claimed.
“I suppose that frustrates me as former minister because I had given hope to victims of crime like Peter Dolan that sentences going forward would not be as lenient.”
The department is now in pre-consultation with stakeholders. The report will be published early next year.
She understands the delay was because DOJ officials were working on legacy issues and the governmental paramilitary action plan.
“But my point was why did they have me announce the review when they were nowhere ready to begin it?”
In the Dolans’ case the maximum sentence the driver could be given was 14 years. That is the maximum sentence and judges have to work downwards from that, depending on a wide range of factors the defendant may cite in court, she said.
“But after sentencing the defendant will serve only half his sentence in custody and half on licence. In contrast the Dolan family are serving a life sentence.”
Mr Dolan said he was “very angry and disappointed” at the news and the delay.
In the meantime, he said, drunk and drug drivers continue to cause death and mayhem on the roads daily.
“The sentences being handed down by the courts do not in any way reflect the devastation and trauma left behind. It is vitally important that the Sentencing Review continues to a conclusion as soon as possible.
“We further appeal to our MLAs to come out and support our campaign to get the law changed in line with Great Britain - at least 20 years for death by dangerous driving.”
DOJ responded that the review is comprehensive and comprises a number of important strands. A spokesman said: “The Department intends to consult on the issues considered by the Review later this year. The consultation will include consideration of the appropriate maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving.”