Northern Ireland’s most senior judge has suggested that sentencing guidelines which are currently used in some terrorist cases could also be applied to combat organised crime gangs.
Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan appeared before the Stormont Justice Committee on Thursday, when he also briefed MLAs on the backlog of court cases caused by the Covid pandemic.
Sir Declan was questioned by committee chairman, Mervyn Storey, on public concern over perceived leniency in sentencing for serious cases.
Mr Storey said: “Do you believe, Sir Declan, that the judiciary does get it when they see the public reaction?
Sir Declan responded: “I agree that it is important that there is public confidence in the way in which judges sentence offenders. I also think it is helpful that there is an opportunity to review any sentence that appears to be unduly lenient.
“We have on occasion, where it seemed to us appropriate, significantly increased sentences.”
The Lord Chief Justice added: “We have (sentencing) guidelines which talk about, in serious offences of violence, the importance of recognising terrorist involvement.
“For myself, I am beginning to wonder whether we should change that rubric somewhat and recognise that the same approach is appropriate in relation to organised criminality.
“I think there is increasing evidence of organised criminality activity which originated with those who might have been involved in some way or other, but there are groups now who independently are organising themselves in criminal fashion which it seems to me that would justify virtually the identical approach.”
Sir Declan said the justice system had reacted positively to the crisis caused by the pandemic.
He said: “We have now got to the stage where the vast majority of magistrate’s courts are now open and we have had additional court sittings. The presiding district judge has indicated to me that by the end of this year the issues connected with the backlog will have been dealt with.
“The story is somewhat different in the Crown courts, where we weren’t able to get back to business until August 2020.
“The position at the moment is we probably have pretty close to 50% more cases waiting for hearing than we had at April 1, 2020. That gives a sense of the backlog.”
The Lord Chief Justice also suggested that he would like to see increased sentencing powers given to magistrates in Northern Ireland.
He said: “At the moment its general jurisdiction is in and about 12 months in terms of sentencing powers.
“It seems to me that we have, unlike England and Wales, professional magistrates. People who are lawyers, who are well trained.
“And I think these people are entirely capable of dealing with cases with a greater sentencing liability. My suggestion has been that the magistrate should be entitled to impose in respect of any indictable case where it is appropriate, sentences of up to five years.
“Now, that doesn’t mean that anybody would be forced to have their case heard in the magistrates court because you would have the either way approach. The accused would be perfectly entitled to elect to go to the Crown court.
“I would hope that at some stage some serious consideration could be given to that.”
Sir Declan Morgan is to retire as Northern Ireland’s Lord Chief Justice later this year.