Everyday justice

Since the conclusion of the Lillis trial, there has been renewed media and public interest in judicial decision making, particular as it relates to sentencing.

Understandably, national media and popular interest is heightened in high profile cases like murder. District Courts handle a greater volume of offences, most of a comparably minor nature, and regional newspapers cover those District Courts in great detail. It is anecdotally thought that such court reports are a popular feature.

For the average citizen, an appearance in their local District Court is far more probable (though not exactly more desirable) than an appearance in the Central Criminal Court. Regional court reports are a useful guide to what one penalty one might expect to receive for driving without a valid tax or NCT disc, for public order offences or for violations of environmental or planning regulations.

Ian O’Donnell‘s article in today’s Irish Times summarises the nature of judicial decision making in arriving at sentencing decisions in the District Courts and notes the importance of regional newspapers in documenting them. He observes that the reports tend to be neutral and dispassionate in style, unlike the often highly charged reports of serious crime in the national media.

In documenting outcomes, regional newspapers enhance the public administration of justice. They also reflect what Mr. O’Donnell terms the judges’ “optimistic view of human nature”, something that might not be popular with the law and order element of Irish society but which suggests judges are far less out of touch than is often claimed and are, in fact, acutely aware that many court appearances result from oversight, foolishness or societal factors.

As a group, judges seemed to attribute behaviour to internal, controllable and stable causes. Yet, contrary to what the academic literature would predict, they did not inflict harsh penalties as a result. This departure from what might have been expected is explained by the existence of a strong belief in the capacity of individuals to redeem themselves.

Demonstrating their belief in redeemability, judges were prepared to suspend prison sentences, or adjourn cases that could have led to a custodial sentence, to give the defendant an opportunity to demonstrate willingness to reform. They used the Probation Act and the court poor box to enable first-time or minor offenders to walk away without a conviction.

The guilty party was regularly offered a second chance, putting the onus on them to change. This was accompanied by a warning that the response would be harsher on any future occasion. These practices were designed to create a relationship of trust between the offender and the judge […]

An examination of local newspaper coverage suggests that these variations are rooted, to some extent at least, in an optimistic view of human nature. This is to be welcomed. The continued existence of a faith in the capacity of the individual law-breaker to choose another path may offer some protection against the rise in punitiveness that has become so evident in other jurisdictions.