Northern Ireland

Murder sentencing to be reviewed in Northern Ireland - David Ford

David Ford
Image caption David Ford said the review would cover all types of murder

Justice Minister David Ford has announced a review of sentencing in murder cases.

It follows a debate in the assembly sparked by the sentences given to one of the men convicted of the murder of Constable Stephen Carroll.

Mr Ford said the review would cover all murders.

He said Northern Ireland's sentencing guidelines were drawn up over 10 years ago and it was time to take account of changes in other jurisdictions.

The justice minister said the review would start after the Court of Appeal had finished considering the sentence given to John Paul Wootton.

Wootton, 21, was told he must serve a minimum sentence of 14 years for Constable Carroll's murder.

"After that is over, the Department of Justice will be starting a review of all sentences relating to murder cases obviously including the murders of police officers," he said.

"I think we have to take account of the changes that have occurred in other jurisdictions - in England and Wales and the Republic since our guidelines were drawn up 11 or 12 years ago.

"But we will be considering all the evidence when we go through that process.

Mr Ford said the work would complement that being done by the lord chief justice and his sentencing group.

He said that group would have two lay members added to it to ensure wider representation.

'Lives valued lower'

Earlier in the debate, the justice minister questioned the value of a sentencing council proposed by the SDLP, saying it could be "costly to establish, costly to maintain".

In proposing the DUP's motion calling for a review of sentencing policy, Jonathan Craig told MLAs that sentencing guidelines for the murder of police officers appeared to value the life of PSNI officers lower than those in Great Britain or the Republic of Ireland.

He observed that there was a mandatory sentence of 30 years for the killing of a police officer in England and Wales, and 40 years in the Republic of Ireland.

Mr Craig described the killing of Constable Carroll as "the most serious murder case since the formation of the Police Service of Northern Ireland".

He added that his party would not support the SDLP's amendment.

Alban Maginness proposed the SDLP amendment calling for the setting-up of a sentencing guidelines council.

Mr Maginness said it was important to send out a strong message to those who would attack the police, and there was a need to address the issue of public confidence in sentencing.

"It is our view that a council should be the preferred method for dealing with sentencing, and sentencing guidelines," he added.

Sinn Fein's Raymond McCartney said his party would be supporting the SDLP call for a sentencing council.

He said it was his opinion that the house "should not divide over this motion".

Ulster Unionist MLA Ross Hussey said he was proud to have worn the uniforms of both the RUC and the PSNI.

He described the system in New South Wales, Australia, where a life sentence meant imprisonment for life in most cases.

Stewart Dickson of Alliance expressed his sympathy for Mrs Carroll, as had all the other speakers, and said his party would not be supporting the SDLP amendment.

Jim Allister of the TUV spoke against the involvement of politicians in judicial matters citing the early release scheme, which had allowed for the release of paramilitary prisoners as part of the peace process.

"Our system does allow a review", he said.

The SDLP amendment was defeated and the DUP motion was carried on an oral vote.

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