Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald made the remarks after criticism raised over the two-and-a-half-year jail sentence given to former journalist Tom Humphries for the grooming and sexual abuse of a child.
Her remarks about the judiciary were accompanied by calls for a sentencing council so judges get guidelines for jail lengths for different crimes.
Speaking in the Dáil, Ms McDonald said: “The leniency of the sentence handed down in a high-profile sexual offences case earlier this week has, rightfully, disgusted and angered people. The abuser groomed a young girl, bombarding her with thousands of text messages, many of which were sexually explicit. He then sexually abused her when she was only 16 years old.”
While not mentioning the case by name, it was understood that Ms McDonald was specifically referring to the Humphries case.
She said that despite the “horrific nature of sex crimes, “perpetrators receive very light sentences”.
“This infuriates not just victims and their families but the general public. It sends dangerous messages to victims of crime generally but specifically to victims of sexual violence.”
Ms McDonald added: “Inconsistency, leniency, and light sentences are common practice. The House should make no mistake. A recent high-profile case has brought the judiciary into disrepute. The public does not trust our justice system to deliver punishments that fit these crimes.”
She said there was a need for a sentencing council, which would consider guidelines for the bench. Ms McDonald said it “would massively enhance public confidence, which has been dented, in the sentencing policy of the State”.
Leas-Cheann Comhairle Pat “The Cope” Gallagher warned Ms McDonald about referring to specific court cases.
The judiciary yesterday declined to address the criticism or suggestions. A statement from the Association of Judges of Ireland read: “The position is that it is legally impermissible for any judge, whether individually or as a member of an association, to comment on, or to engage in public discourse either directly or indirectly, concerning the decision of another judge or judges in a particular case.
“To do so would be potentially undermining of and disrespectful of the constitutionally protected independence of the judge or judges concerned.”
The association, replying to the Irish Examiner, pointed out that it would be inappropriate to comment on the Humphries case as the DPP could review the sentence imposed.
In the Dáil, Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald said she accepted that the consistency of sentencing was “an important issue”.
A new judicial council would distribute inform-ation on sentencing among judges, the Dáil heard.
Ms Fitzgerald said sentencing was a matter for judges, but added: “There is also a long history here and elsewhere of a belief that the sentencing does not reflect the seriousness of the crime. I am on record again and again as saying that I do not believe that enough attention has been paid to victims in our legal system and I reiterate that this afternoon.”