Firearms ruling will not ‘spring criminals from prison’

Court effectively struck down law on minimum term for those convicted for a second time

‘The Supreme Court has said a judge cannot be told what sentence they must impose on a second-time offender,’ explained one barrister. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

‘The Supreme Court has said a judge cannot be told what sentence they must impose on a second-time offender,’ explained one barrister. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

The ruling of the Supreme Court relating to a jail sentence imposed on a man convicted of firearms offences was “significant” but would not “spring criminals from prison”, legal sources said.

The Supreme Court effectively struck down a piece of legislation that stipulated judges must impose a minimum five-year prison term on people convicted of firearms offences for a second time.

Under Irish law there are effectively two forms of so-called mandatory sentences for drugs offences and for firearms offences.

One is best described as a presumptive mandatory minimum sentence. The laws state that, for example, if a person is convicted of dealing a commercial-sized quantity of drugs, they must be jailed for a minimum of 10 years.

However, the legislation also gives the judiciary the leeway to impose shorter sentences if there are “exceptional and specific circumstances” that would render the mandatory 10-year sentence “unjust in all the circumstances”.

A study of sentencing carried out by The Irish Times 2½ years ago revealed the 10-year so-called mandatory sentence was imposed in only 3 per cent of cases.

Possession of a firearm with intent to endanger life also carries a so-called mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years. And other firearms offences carry a so-called mandatory minimum sentence of five years. But, as with drug offences, judges have discretion.

Judicial discretion

The second form of mandatory sentence under Irish law for drugs and firearms offences is aimed at repeat offenders and is an outright mandatory sentence, with no discretion afforded to judges. It is that limiting of judicial discretion in sentencing a repeat firearms offender that was struck down yesterday.

In winning his case Wayne Ellis is not freed from jail. Instead his sentence will now be reviewed by the Court of Appeal. It will be free to uphold the sentence; or lengthen or shorten it.

Barristers who spoke to The Irish Times said the ruling would not result in shorter sentences being imposed and it did not mean people now in prison would be freed.

“The Supreme Court has said a judge cannot be told what sentence they must impose on a second-time offender,” said one barrister. “They can still jail the person for the five-year term; or for a longer or shorter time. But it’s their choice and that’s the difference.”

Sources agreed that the ruling also effectively strikes down the concept of absolute minimum sentences for repeat drug dealers.