POLITICIANS HAVE been accusing magistrates of lenient sentencing for political point scoring purposes, a peak body representing lawyers in New South Wales said last week.
Politicians including NSW Opposition leader Peter Debnam and NSW Premier Morris Iemma last week claimed on national radio that magistrates are not imposing tough enough sentences to deter violent criminals. But the New South Wales Law Society rejected the assertions, arguing that they undermine the community’s confidence in the justice system.
Law Society president June McPhie stressed the importance of the independence of the judiciary, claiming that it must be consistent and remain unaffected by the views of both politicians and the public. “The integrity of the judiciary in the eyes of the community would be completely compromised if it were not seen to be independent of outside influences, including that of Government,” said McPhie.
She said that few appeals are lodged for so-called ‘soft’ sentences imposed by magistrates, and that politicians should consider this before they attack the legal profession.
“In 2005 approximately 300,000 criminal cases were settled by magistrates in New South Wales. The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) questioned the leniency of the sentence in less that 1 per cent of these cases,” she said.
She argued that sentencing should be consistent, and that in cases where the prosecution does not agree with the sentence imposed, a leniency appeal should be considered.
“The appeal process has served our courts well for a very long time. It acts as a check and balance mechanism to ensure sentencing remains consistent and transparent at all times.”
She said politicians often publicly criticise magistrates and their sentencing decisions for political mileage.
But such criticism is harmful to the independence of the judiciary and can result in an erosion of public confidence in our justice system.
Earlier this month NSW’s Chief Magistrate Derek Price challenged police to “put up or shut up” over allegations that local courts are too lenient in sentencing, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.
Price said police had in many cases failed to lodge appeals but rather had turned to the media to run their grievances.