High Court reporters
A Supreme Court judge has held up a man’s appeal as a “warning” to the lower courts to follow good sentencing principles that have been established over many years.
Mr Justice Peter Charleton set out the principles of sentencing, established by earlier court judgements, saying a misapplication of these principles or bypassing of guidelines precedents “requires correction”.
The Supreme Court and Court of Appeal (COA) have given many judgments, he said, making clear that part of the court’s role is to achieve consistency in sentencing.
Mr Justice Charleton said it is only through this set process and by arriving at a fair sentence that the voice of the victim of crime is “truly heard”.
His comments came as the five-judge court dismissed an appeal by Stephen Duffy against the severity of a sentence imposed on him by the COA for an offence of assault causing harm on August 29th, 2016. Duffy, of Homelawn Road, Tallaght, had pleaded guilty in 2021 to the offence.
Mr Justice Charleton said the sentence given to Stephen Duffy at trial and by the COA “was not appropriate” and remains inadequate. However, as the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) did not appeal further, the COA’s imposition of a sentence of four years in prison with the final year suspended must stand.
‘Entirely unprovoked attack’
This was an “entirely unprovoked attack” that resulted in the most catastrophic of injuries, so the “headline” sentence of 6.5 years identified by the Circuit Court and upheld by the COA can be regarded as “too low as a matter of fundamental principle”.
The COA’s ruling had, on the application of the DPP, overturned the trial judge’s decision to suspend all four years of the prison sentence.
The trial judge reduced the 6.5-year headline sentence after accepting Duffy was genuinely remorsefully and was not inclined to this behaviour, she reduced this on certain conditions, including paying €10,000 compensation to the victim on top of the €5,000 he already offered.
Duffy had struck his unknown victim with a single blow at Belgard Road, Tallaght, rendering him unconscious.
The man required life-saving surgery and was in a coma for two weeks, said the judge. He has been left with permanent loss of taste and smell, with chronic headache, blackouts and dizzy spells. Due to the injuries he was unable to maintain regular employment, suffered financial difficulties and been homeless for two years.
Duffy appealed the severity of the COA sentence on two grounds. He submitted the views of the victim regarding his imprisonment were relevant to his sentencing and that his offer of compensation to the victim was a relevant mitigating factor.
In a main judgment separate to Mr Justice Charleton’s, Ms Justice Iseult O’Malley held that the COA was correct to conclude this offence, “inflicted in completely inexcusable circumstances”, required a custodial sanction.
The matter of the victim’s opinion being presented to the court “in truth” did not arise in this case, she said.
She explained the victim contacted Duffy on social media after the sentencing hearing and, “in an extremely generous way”, extended good wishes and expressed a hope he had learned his lesson.
His personal messages could not be taken as having been intended to be put before a court, and the COA did not err in declining to accept the messages as a significant factor in the appeal, the judge said.
Dealing with the general issue, she said a victim’s views given to a court should have a limited role in the process of sentencing an accused.
A victim can put forward a plea for leniency and the court can take this into account if it is based on a reason specific to the accused. The primary role of a sentencing court is to administer justice by imposing a sentence that appropriately reflects the nature of the crime and the circumstances of the accused, she added.
The court also dismissed Duffy’s second ground of appeal relating to his voluntary offer of compensation to the victim.
Ms Justice O’Malley said such a payment represents a full acceptance by an offender that he is responsible for the harm caused by his criminal offence.
It is a relevant mitgatory factor in all cases, but acceptance of such a payment does not preclude the imposition of a custodial sentence, she held.
If a suspended or part-suspended sentence is in any event appropriate in a particular case, the judge did not see a difficulty in making the suspended element conditional on payment of the sum offered.
Ms Justice Elizabeth Dunne, Mr Justice Séamus Woulfe and Mr Justice Brian Murray concurred with the findings.