MP raises fears over Toland jail sentence

Undated handout photo issued by Police Service of Northern Ireland of Bertie Acheson with his wife Sheila
Undated handout photo issued by Police Service of Northern Ireland of Bertie Acheson with his wife Sheila

An MP who campaigns for tougher sentences for pensioner abuse has hit out after it was revealed that a Co Antrim man will only serve half of his nine-year-sentence for manslaughter behind bars.

South Antrim DUP MLA William McCrea was speaking after burglar Paul Toland from Antrim was given the maximum nine-year sentence for the manslaughter of pensioner Bertie Acheson, through a vicious attack on him in his Coleraine home in 2012.

However, Mr Toland will only serve half of his nine-year sentence in jail, with the other half on licence.

The sentencing has provoked debate between Mr McCrea, the Northern Ireland Office (NIO), the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Lord Chief Justice about who is responsible for introducing minimum sentences. Mr McCrea concluded that it was primarily the responsibility for ministers - but said that his party would consider trying to push it through with a private member’s bill.

The MP said that the Acheson case is “different from many in that at least someone was identified for this crime and brought before a court”.

He added: “However, the public are rightly concerned that someone convicted of such a serious crime will only spend four and a half years behind bars.

“We believe that the sentences handed down, particularly for attacks on vulnerable older people, do not reflect the seriousness of the crime.

“When comments are made about it being a matter for legislators to deal with, that most directly relates to ministers who primarily are responsible for bringing forward legislation. We will continue to press ministers for action, but have stated in the past that we would consider private members’ legislation to bring forward mandatory sentencing.”

In Westminster this week the NIO deferred lobbying on the matter by Mr McCrea to the DOJ. A DOJ spokesman noted that the Criminal Justice (NI) Order 2008 requires prisoners such as Toland to be released on licence after serving up to half their sentences in jail, the rest of the sentence to be served “on licence under supervision in the community”.

He added: “Previously, prisoners were released on remission at the halfway point without supervision.”

Earlier in the week the DOJ rejected Mr McCrea’s call for minimum sentences, saying that Minister David Ford “has argued that the discretion of the judiciary should be maintained so that decisions reflect the individual circumstances of each case”.