Over 350 people convicted of killing or grievously injuring others on Northern Ireland roads have walked free from court in the last six years, with nobody being given the maximum 10-14 years sentence, an investigation can reveal today.
Grief-stricken families expressing disappointment outside Northern Ireland courts following the sentencing of motorists whose reckless behaviour has claimed dozens of lives since 2009 have become a familiar sight as the death toll continues.
READ MORE: READ MORE: Father whose son was killed by drunk driver calls for stiffer sentences
Stormont Department of Justice figures uncovered under the Freedom of Information Act reveal what many families in Northern Ireland (and reflected across the UK)often see as the disparity between the often brutal and remorseless way their loved ones are killed and what they feel are often unduly lenient sentences in response. Some killer drivers, high on drink and drugs, are responsible for deaths described by the bereaved as “feeling like murder”.
An investigation by the i newspaper, News Letter and our sister titles across the UK details for the first time what campaigners argue is the chronic leniency of the courts in dealing with killer drivers. The findings will increase the pressure on the government to revise sentencing rules for dangerous driving offences.
Figures released under Freedom of Information show:
• Since 2009 not one of the 28 people convicted of death by dangerous driving has been handed the maximum penalty of 10-14 years in Northern Ireland.
• Of the 24 people jailed for the most serious driving crime on the statute book, well over half - 14 - were given between three years and less than 12 months in jail.
• Of the 369 people convicted of killing or grievously injuring others through dangerous or careless driving on Northern Ireland roads from 2009 to 2015, a total of 316 walked free from courts.
• Of that total, 135 received suspended jail terms or community service. In 174 cases, the offender escaped with only a fine while seven were given disqualification or penalty points.
A long-delayed consultation on a UK review of sentencing in dangerous driving cases has been promised by Westminster ministers to begin by the end of the year.
But critics point out the review was first promised in 2014 and former Cabinet minister last night accused current ministers of “foot-dragging” over the issue, saying it was clear that the law and sentencing governing culpable deaths on Britain’s roads is “wholly inadequate”.
PACKAGE OF MEASURES
Campaigners are demanding a package of measures, including a root and branch review of sentencing guidelines for judges to ensure that tougher sentences are imposed in the most serious cases and the closure of loopholes which mean that it is in the interest of drink drivers involved in a fatal collision to flee the scene.
Critics say those convicted are escaping too lightly.
Chair of the Stormont Justice Committee Paul Frew MLA wants stiffer sentences.
“Death by dangerous driving is a very serious offence,” he said. “Perpetrators must feel the full weight of the law, particularly when it is as a result of drink driving or by drugs,” he said.
“Behind every statistic is a grieving family who simply want justice for their loved ones killed by dangerous or careless drivers. We need to ensure that deterrents are put in place and tough sentencing is one way of doing that.
“It is vitally important that we as a society take a stand against those who believe it is acceptable to drive irresponsibly. In particular the assumption that any individual can drink alcohol and get behind the wheel of the car needs to be totally dispelled. The message needs to be resounding that individuals will be before the courts, if found to be driving dangerously or carelessly.
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“My role is as a legislator and we take these matters very seriously especially when there is a danger to someone’s life. I believe that we should look towards increasing the sentence available for such crimes. To find that there have been only two convictions for 2014 and 2015 is unacceptable.”
Every day an average of five people are killed on UK roads, all too often in sudden and traumatic circumstances which families liken to losing a loved one to violence.
In cases where such deaths arise from an act of criminality, the consequences are all the more devastating.
The i/News Letter/Johnston Press investigation has spoken to numerous families across the UK who have had to cope with the loss of loved one to an act of dangerous driving.
The vast majority told this investigation that sentencing is often too lenient and they feel let down by failures across the system of sanctions, including a decline in the use and length of driving bans and an apparent willingness of prosecutors to accept a lesser charge of causing death by careless driving.
Peter Dolan from Killyclogher in Co Tyrone is backing our campaign for stiffer sentences after a speeding drunk driver with several previous convictions mounted the kerb and killed his “model” son Enda, in 2014 in Belfast.
The driver was jailed for only three and a half years for taking the life of his son, 18, who had just begun studying architecture at Queen’s University and was a former Deputy Head Boy at Omagh CBS.
Mr Dolan wonders what someone has to do to get the maximum 14 years sentence. “This is whole point of my quest for justice,” he said.
Justice Minister Claire Sugden told him she would consider his concerns points in a forthcoming sentencing review,” he added.