Tough talk but weak action

County View

County View
John Healy

The recent revelation that Mayo has the lowest level of conviction rates in Ireland for motoring offences should be a cause for deep concern. Official figures for the three years to 2020 show that only seven out of every 100 charged with speeding offences were convicted, while only eight of every 100 caught holding their mobiles while driving had a conviction recorded.
Even if we are to accept that there may be valid explanations for why so many walk unscathed out the courtroom door, general public opinion suggests that court sentencing for road offences veers overmuch to the lenient side. Newspaper reports of road driving cases – and allowing for the fact that every nuance of a court case cannot be captured in writing – often leave the reader baffled as to how or why a particular verdict has been reached.
The Mayo figures were among those made available to PARC, the road safety group set up by Donegal woman Susan Gray after the death of her husband in 2004. Stephen Gray was a self-employed hackney operator who had stepped out of his transit cab to help two passengers alight in the early hours of St Stephen’s Day. As he did so, he was struck by a van and hurled 40 feet into a field, where he died instantly. The van driver was a 21-year-old learner driver who was driving unaccompanied, without L plates and without tax. He was subsequently charged on all three counts. He was fined €470.
This burning injustice spurred Susan Gray to seek some sort of redress for the death of her blameless husband. An appeal to GSOC led to a review of how her case had been handled, resulting in the Garda investigation at the accident scene being criticised as ‘inadequate and poorly conducted’. The sergeant in charge of the scene had absented himself at the first opportunity, leaving a sole garda to deal with ‘the chaotic scene’ as best he could, with the subsequent support he received from his superiors described as ‘totally inadequate’.
The solicitor who Susan Gray had instructed to represent her at her husband’s inquest had failed to appear; after persistent complaints to the Law Society, the solicitor was eventually struck off by the High Court for that, among other misdemeanours.
Among the measures advocated by Ms Gray and her group – and subsequently acceded to by the Government – were mandatory testing for drugs and alcohol at the site of road accidents, and new sentencing guidelines for judges in the case of motoring offences.
However, whether the supposedly tougher sanctions have ever been implemented is open to question. In 2018, a report prepared for a sentencing committee of the Courts Service found that a third of all sentences handed down were overly lenient, and only one-fifth could be regarded as severe. And, the report went on, while judges were strong in their verbal condemnation of dangerous and careless driving, they were notably weak when it came to imposing sentence.
The net result has been a plethora of cases where the Director of Public Prosecutions has been moved to appeal verdicts considered to be ‘unduly lenient’ to the Court of Appeal, where the original verdict is generally overturned and substituted with a more severe sentence.
Apart altogether from the inordinate cost of such a wasteful procedure, surely the public is entitled to question the chasm between judicial opaqueness and practical common sense. For the courts to lose the trust of the public because of judgements that are flagrantly unbalanced would be a dangerous path on which to embark.