The Courts Service today released their Annual Report for 2009. As usual it’s always an interesting read for those of us who work down there. Apart from seeing in black and white how busy it actually was it’s interesting to put things in some kind of context, to see the breakdown of what actually happened in cool columns of statistics rather than the blur of day to day reporting.
It came as no surprise that murders were at their highest level in eight years. Last year was a pretty hectic one. 53 murders were sent to the Central Criminal Court in 2009 of which 49 were dealt with. There were 15 guilty pleas leaving 31 cases to go to trial. Of those 31, three defendants were found not guilty by reason of insanity, one was acquitted and the rest were convicted – which rather puts the lie to the assumption that the majority of murder trials end in acquittal, certainly not my experience.
There were 18 convictions of murder and 22 convictions for other offences, including manslaughter. If those figures don’t seem to add up that would be because the not guilty by reason of insanity verdicts would still result in some form of detention, usually to the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum.
The 18 murder convictions all received the mandatory life sentence as did one of the manslaughter verdicts (Ronald Dunbar, who was convicted of the killing of Sligo teenager Melissa Mahon – his appeal is due to be heard soon.) There were another ten sentences of ten years or more.
Looking over the trials I covered last year those figures mean a lot of trials that went under the radar. For every David Bourke, Ronnie Dunbar or Gerald Barry there many more trials that didn’t peak the media attention and were heard without the fanfare that the high profile trials get. I’ve written before about the trials that go uncommented. I know there’s been a lot of criticism in recent years of the level of press attention that turns certain murder trials into cause celebres but the flip side of that is that those that lose their lives get their stories told. I couldn’t list off the names of the defendants in the trials I didn’t cover, let alone the victims.
The only type of criminal trial that was down in numbers was rape down 37% from the 2008 figure of 78. Before you get excited that’s not as positive as it sounds. There were still 52 cases in front of the courts. 18 ended with guilty pleas but 25 went forward to trial. Of the 21 sentences imposed there were 3 life sentences, 5 over 12 years and the rest between 5 and 12 years.
I’ve written at length here in the past about the low sentencing for sex crimes in this country and these figures bear that out. Rape isn’t an offence that has an inbuilt lesser charge like the majority of murder trials. You are either guilty or you’re not. To give someone convicted of rape a mere five years is ridiculously lenient. I’ve covered a lot of rape trials in the past and I’m well aware that there are different degrees of aggression involved but rape is rape.
Of the life sentences given last year, two of them were to the same person, Gerald Barry. He had already been convicted of the brutal murder of Swiss student Manuela Riedo in Galway and was later sentenced on two counts of rape for his hauntingly similar attack on a French student only a few short weeks before he killed Manuela. I was at that sentencing in Galway. Judge Paul Carney told Barry that he had no hesitation giving him life sentences on both counts and expressed the view that for someone like him the carrot of the automatic quarter off his sentence that every prisoner receives was a waste of time.
But this means that only one other rapist was given a life sentence, the maximum any of the others received was 12 years. Life is the maximum sentence that can be given for rape but based on these figures you’d pretty much have to go on to kill to be given it. But I digress.
In the Circuit Court the bulk of the cases were theft and robbery. Up by 28% since 2008, there were over 1500 dealt with. The next largest category was assault, up 5% to 1100, followed by drugs offences, approaching the 1000 mark and up by a depressing 23%. The most shocking jump is the rise in child abuse and child trafficking offences, up from 10 in 2008 to 397 last year, although this leap was due to just two cases each involving over 180 individual offences. However it was only earlier this month that an international report slammed Ireland for it’s record combating child trafficking.
Apart from the crime figures, the main focus of press attention on the report has been concerning the massive increase in debt matters. Bankruptcies were up by over 100% at 17 and there were almost 70% more orders to have businesses wound up – 128 in total. This section of the report makes depressing but rather unsurprising reading for anyone who’s picked up a paper over the past twelve months or so. Numbers in every area have risen except for new businesses – rather unsurprisingly there weren’t as many people looking to take out restaurant or hotel licenses last year.
The grim economic climate has even made itself felt on matters of the heart. Divorce, separations and annulments are all down on 2008 as are applications for quickie marriages. Domestic violence applications are down as well though you can’t help wondering how representative those figures really are.
The Court Service Annual Report always gives an interesting reflection of the state of the country. It might be a reflection of a moment in time some distance away, given the time things take to get to court but it’s an overview of life that’s difficult to see anywhere else. The courts reflect the darker sides of society, the rotting underbelly that’s frequently hidden from our gaze. Looking at these figures might give us a slightly twisted view of the world we live in but it’s an accurate one nonetheless and says a lot about where we are, or at least have been, as a country.