Is it wrong for a politician to plead for leniency in all circumstances?
Defendant in this case is sole carer of four children
Bobby Molloy: he resigned as a minister after letters were sent from his office seeking temporary release for a convicted rapist
Niall Collins is not the first politician to find himself in the eye of the storm after writing to a court seeking leniency for a constituent.
In 2002 Galway West TD Bobby Molloy resigned as a minister of state after it was disclosed a number of letters had been sent from his office seeking temporary release for a convicted rapist from his constituency.
Six years later, Labour Party TD (and now Minister of State for Equality and Mental Health) Kathleen Lynch apologised after she wrote to a court during the sentencing phase of a rape case in Cork. The convicted rapist was sentenced to 14 years and his two victims subsequently went public to criticise Lynch’s intervention.
Several other TDs and Senators have found themselves the subject of criticism after similar interventions.
Yesterday, Collins was heavily criticised by Reform Alliance TD Lucinda Creighton and Fine Gael TD Regina Doherty. The Meath East TD said that Collins had sought to influence a judge. She said that under the separation of powers, there was no circumstance where a legislator or TD should seek to influence a court. “It’s just not on,” she said.
In 2008, an effort was made by all political parties to draw up guidelines to cover such practices. The effort failed as it was too difficult to cover all eventualities.
Labour leader Eamon Gilmore told his party back then that such letters should be written in only the most exceptional circumstances.
Was this one such exception? Well, certainly the status of the defendant as the sole carer of four children after their mother died by suicide earlier this year is a factor. The question is if it is appropriate for a TD to make an intervention in such a case?
Character reference Prof
Tom O’Malley of NUI Galway is an authority on sentencing. He said a court in sentencing must take the personal circumstances of the defendant into account. “There is nothing wrong and a great deal right about a character reference,” he said.
He added that individuals sometimes find themselves in very difficult circumstances.
“Sometimes a local politician may be the only person who can speak about those circumstances and has the ability to bring pen to paper.
“A criticism I would make [of Collins’s intervention] is that it was probably unnecessary. The very basic facts of the man’s tragic circumstances would have been brought by his legal advisers . . . to support those facts,” he said.