A drugs courier who turned informer in a bid to help bring down a major crime gang operating across Northern Ireland has won his appeal against being sent to jail.
Senior judges ruled that the 12-month sentence imposed on Lawrence McLaughlin should instead be suspended.
The 55-year-old Coleraine man will now be released from prison to live under protection at a secret location somewhere in Britain.
McLaughlin was caught with up to £60,000 worth of cocaine after police stopped a taxi he was driving near Dundrod, Co Antrim in November 2015.
He also admitted having acted as a cannabis courier between 30-40 occasions for a gang based in Coleraine.
Over a three-year period he was paid around £200 for every package delivered.
McLaughlin agreed to become an assisting offender, providing police with information on those behind the drugs importation and distribution, in return for a reduced sentence.
Earlier this year he was convicted of offences related to the possession and supply of cocaine and cannabis.
He was handed a 12-month prison term, split between half in custody and half on licence.
Since then he has spent around six weeks behind bars, his contact with other prisoners limited to ensure his safety.
In the Court of Appeal on Thursday defence counsel argued that McLaughlin should not have been imprisoned due to exceptional circumstances
Charles McCreanor QC stressed the continued burden his client faces due to his co-operation with the authorities.
McLaughlin leads a life of isolation and continued threat while the Public Prosecution Service assesses the information he has supplied, the court heard.
“His commitment has been to at least allow consideration to bringing down a major and significant criminal gang operating in Nothern Ireland in the drugs world,” Mr McCreanor said.
“If there’s merit (in our appeal) he will immediately be removed and placed under cover.
“He has professional support from police services, but his connection and support from friends and family has ended.”
Allowing the appeal, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan cited case law on assisting offenders which was not brought to the trial judge’s attention.
That authority deals with the issue of whether to suspend similar terms imposed on those providing co-operation.
Taking into account McLaughlin’s six weeks in custody, Sir Declan said: “We are satisfied this is a case where we should intervene by way of suspending the 12 month sentence that was imposed... for two years.”