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Rape case shows our judges are not untouchable

IT takes a big person to admit they've made a mistake. So Justice Paul Carney deserves credit for apologising to Fiona Doyle and ordering her rapist father to be put behind bars after all.

Now the Irish legal system as a whole must learn some lessons from this horrific case -- by radically reforming the way we sentence our growing legion of sex criminals.

One thing is clear. The public outrage over Carney's original decision to release Patrick O'Brien on bail proves that legal bigwigs can no longer behave as if they are separate from the rest of society.



SAILS

We've come a long way from when a British judge asked in court, "Who exactly are the Beatles?", prompting a barrister to reply, "I believe they are a popular beat combo, m'lud."

In the last year, a series of events has shown that judges are not as untouchable as they used to be. For the first time in history, their pay was cut by a referendum in which 80pc of the public voted to trim their sails. More pain is on the way, with Justice Minister Alan Shatter determined to make them sit for longer and take fewer holidays.

At the same time, a number of sentences handed down from the bench in recent times have come under public scrutiny -- if not outrage.

Last March, there was widespread shock when a businessman was given six years in jail for avoiding customs duty on imported garlic. With so many violent criminals getting off lightly by comparison, this seemed disproportionate. The Court of Criminal Appeal agreed, and set aside the sentence this week.

Does this at least show that the system works? Not a bit of it. Last July the public was even more disgusted when vicious sex attacker Anthony Lyons, who pounced on a 27-year-old woman as she walked home at night, had all but six months of his six-year sentence suspended by the trial judge.

Not surprisingly, the DPP began an appeal to review this "unduly lenient" verdict, but Lyons has since been released and is now awaiting the hearing of the appeal as a free man.

Now Fiona Doyle's ordeal has shown once and for all that the justice system is not fit for purpose. This brave woman was clearly devastated last Monday when she saw her monstrous father walk out of court on bail pending his appeal.

After Justice Carney's change of heart yesterday, Fiona can smile again -- but that doesn't alter the fact that she should never have been put through such pain in the first place.

The answer to this dilemma should be obvious. We need clear sentencing guidelines that judges can use as a benchmark when handing down their verdicts, safe in the knowledge that they will not be radically altered by our overly complex appeals procedure. This should end a situation where sentences can yo-yo up and down for a similar offence, or appear completely disproportionate when compared to other crimes.

Luckily, we don't need to look too far to see how the system can be cleaned up.

In 2010, England created a Sentencing Council to determine all the factors that judges must take into account when deciding how long an offender should spend in jail.



SCALE

It also monitors criminal trials to make sure there are no major discrepancies between the sentences being handed out.

If a sentencing council can work across the water, there seems absolutely no reason why it can't work here.

Next week, the Taoiseach will meet Fiona Doyle to get her perspective on what can be done to help people in her position. She will surely tell him that there is no time to lose -- because the scale of sex abuse in Ireland means there are many other victims who will soon be crying out for justice as well.

The story of Fiona Doyle and her evil father is a truly tragic one.

If the Irish legal system seizes the moment for reform, however, it might just have a happy ending.