Page last updated at 10:28 GMT, Thursday, 2 April 2009 11:28 UK

NI judges 'not out of touch'


Sir Brian Kerr explains how sentencing works within the Northern Ireland criminal justice system

By Vincent Kearney
Home affairs correspondent

In a rare interview, Northern Ireland's most senior judge Sir Brian Kerr tells BBC Home Affairs Correspondent Vincent Kearney why he feels some popular perceptions about the judiciary are mistaken.

Sir Brian Kerr bristles at the suggestion that his plush wood panelled chambers are in effect an ivory tower, and that he and other members of the judiciary are out of touch with the real world.

"There is no opportunity, even if we had the inclination to be aloof from society, we are involved in society's ills on a daily basis," the lord chief justice told the BBC.

"We have to confront the most grievous of problems on a daily basis.

"We are here to serve our community and we gladly take on the solemn duty of being a judge, but I will not have it said that judges are immune from experience in society, the reverse, I believe, is the case."

Sentencing policy is an issue that regularly provokes angry criticism of the judiciary, with victims often complaining that the punishment doesn't fit the crime.

That sentiment was reflected in a survey of about 1,000 members of BBC Newsline's e-panel conducted for this week's special series on Crime and Punishment.

Sixty-three per cent said judges don't get the sentencing right, and almost 80% said they believe the criminal justice system is weighted in favour of criminals rather than victims.

The lord chief justice said he's well aware of the public perception, but insists it's a misconception.

He said those who criticise judges aren't fully informed about the sentences they hand out, nor the complexities involved in reaching a decision.

Sir Brian said sentences passed in Northern Ireland were at least as severe as anywhere else in the UK or the Republic of Ireland.

"A proper analysis of sentencing levels in Northern Ireland, compared with jurisdictions in England, Wales, the Republic of Ireland and Scotland shows that the level of sentences in this jurisdiction is at least as severe as in those other jurisdictions," he said.

"My conviction is that those who make a study of the sentencing exercise and the sentencing trends in Northern Ireland will have a very different picture from that which I recognise is the popular conception."

Aaron Montgomery
Aaron Montgomery's killer was given a two-year jail sentence

Sir Brian also highlighted the fact that the attorney general has the power to refer a case to the Court of Appeal if it's felt that a sentence was unduly lenient.

He said the fact that only seven cases were referred last year, from a total of about 1,800 heard in crown courts in Northern Ireland, demonstrated that sentencing is appropriate.

However, the father of a 23-year-old man whose killer was given a two-year sentence after pleading guilty to his manslaughter said the courts had to impose tougher sentences.

Stephen Montgomery's son, Aaron, died after being punched outside a Belfast nightclub in February 2008.

"I have to sit at night with my wife, she cries herself to sleep most nights," Mr Montgomery said.

"She has to put the pillow over her face so the rest of the children don't hear. We are the ones who have got a life sentence. It is heartache from morning to night."

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