The Irish Courts Service today launched an excellent new resource for legal practitioners which will be of interest to many in the wider population. The Irish Sentencing Information System “aims to design and develop a computerised information system, on sentences and other penalties imposed for offences in criminal proceedings, which may inform judges when considering the sentence to be imposed in an individual case.” While primarily designed for judges, the Courts Service have made the enlightened decision to make the database freely available. And why not? It is public information, after all.
As Dr. Vicky Conway, a criminology expert at Queen’s University Belfast, says “[p]reviously to do [sentencing] research would have required spending weeks in courts or at the Court Service in Dublin”.
Those charged with offences and faced with going to court will, understandably, want to know what penalties are facing them. Despite media reports, Ireland has a relatively low level of serious crime and few people are likely to be facing a homicide charge. However, in 2009 the District Courts dealt with 333,161 road traffic offences and 64,748 public order and assault offences. Therefore, there’s a reasonable chance over one’s lifetime that one might be brought before the District Court on a road traffic charge. The law will tell you the maximum penalty and a solicitor can make an educated guess at what penalty might be handed down based on their own experience. This can be supplemented by reports in regional newspapers, which have enabled me to keep an informal record of certain reported outcomes.
The ability to search an official database of such penalties is a great advance. ISIS is a pilot project and most of the information now online comes from the Dublin District and Circuit Courts. If the project is extended nationwide, it will be of huge interest to see what variances exist between districts in respect of similar offences. Many of the penalties noted on my informal list are from different districts and are of limited guidance only: the penalties handed down by the judge in your own district are the most relevant.
One wonders if practitioners will start to use ISIS in making pleas or addressing judges in relation to the severity of penalties in future. For many cases, ISIS appears to record some of the background details to each case which inevitably have an effect on sentencing. Regional newspapers remain the best source of that information, however.