Court of Appeal: Period of disqualification for dangerous driving causing life-changing injuries to small child reduced



Andrew McKeown BL
Andrew McKeown BL

The Court of Appeal has upheld a six-year sentence, with the final two suspended, handed down to a juvenile for dangerous driving that left a two-year-old with life-changing injuries. The judges adjusted another sentence handed down, and reduced the period of disqualification.

Background

N O’R appealed against the severity of the sentence imposed in November 2019 by the Cork Circuit Criminal Court for an offence of violent disorder contrary to the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994 s.15, and an offence of dangerous driving causing serious bodily harm contrary to the Road Traffic Act 1961 s.53 (as amended).

On 16 March 2017, a man parked his car in the forecourt of Skehard Road Maxol station, Blackrock, Co Cork. He was approached by a group of males, including Mr O’R, who had been standing at the shop’s entrance. A brief conversation ensued and the man entered the shop. When he returned to his car, he approached again by the same group. They became violent and chased the man. Six people were charged with violent disorder and one also with a s.3 assault. Mr O’R was the youngest of those charged. Three of the others involved had previous convictions (in two cases, significant previous convictions) while Mr O’R had no previous convictions at the time, though he had been dealt with pursuant to the Juvenile Liaison Scheme.

The sentencing judge decided not to finalise matters at that stage. All of those before the court, with the exception of Mr O’R, had brought compensation, and with the exception of Mr O’R, they had stayed out of trouble. The judge dealt with those other than Mr O’R by way of suspended sentences. In his case, he was involved in an incident of dangerous driving causing serious harm on 25 March 2019. He came before the court in relation to that on foot of signed pleas of guilty.

In March 2019, Mr O’R, then on bail in respect of the violent disorder matter, got into a car he bought the day before for €100. He picked up two passengers, and revved his engine before driving off at speed in a housing estate. He came to a chicane, where he struck a small child. He did not stop, driving on at high speed. The child was brought to Cork University Hospital, where he was put on life support and transferred by special ambulance to Temple Street Children’s Hospital. He experienced a permanent traumatic brain injury, “the effects of which will be with him for the rest of his life”.

Mr O’R was 17 at the time of sentence. In passing sentence, the judge referred to the fact that the sentence he was imposing on the dangerous driving causing serious harm offence had to be consecutive to the violent disorder. He commented that so far as the violent disorder was concerned, he was no better or no worse than the others that had been involved and that they had “got 12 months”. Counsel for Mr O’R pointed out that all of the co-accused in the violent disorder matter had ultimately been dealt with non-custodially, but the judge was not prepared to change his order. 12 months’ imprisonment was imposed for violent disorder, with a six-year sentence (the final two suspended) handed down for the dangerous driving offence. The sentences were to run consecutively, and Mr O’R was disqualified from driving for 20 years.

At the sentence hearing, the judge considered whether Mr O’R should be named in respect of the offence of dangerous driving, with reference to the Children Act 2001 s.93. The judge asked the mother of the injured child whether Mr O’R should be identified. The mother said that he was nearly eighteen, and that she thought the crime was so serious that it would be a benefit to everyone to know what he had done. The judge agreed.

Mr O’R appealed, arguing that the judge failed to afford sufficient weight to the mitigating factors present, and to the public interest in his rehabilitation. It was submitted that the judge erred in hearing the mother on accused to anonymity, and in permitting his identification.

Court of Appeal

Mr Justice George Birmingham, president of the Court of Appeal, said that the way in which Mr O’R drove in a densely populated urban area “at a time when there was every possibility that there would be children out playing, was nothing short of outrageous”.

The court said that the sentencing judge, who was one of the most experienced sentencing judges in the country, had clearly had regard to Mr O’R’s age. The sentence selected was one that had regard to the gravity of the offence, the enormity of the harm done and reflected Mr O’R’s personal circumstances. The court so no reason to interfere with the sentence imposed for the dangerous driving causing serious harm offence.

The judges said that there was a “rational basis for departing from the normal requirement for non-identification”, as the case involved a car, and was “obviously going to involve a substantial period of disqualification from holding a driving licence”. The protection that the public would be enhanced if it was known publicly that Mr O’R “was not somebody who should be behind the wheel of a car and that it would be a cause of concern if he was seen there”.

The judges did not consider “that the judge was wise to seek the views of the mother of the injured party”. While she expressed her views in a “responsible, restrained and measured fashion” which were “entirely rational”, the judges “would not expect that injured parties or their relatives would be particularly well-positioned to balance the competing considerations in issue. For that reason, we would not like to see the procedure followed in this case becoming widespread.”

Unlike his co-offenders for the first offence, he reoffended in a very serious manner. It was inevitable that his situation would be differentiated. However, the extent of that differentiation caused the court concern, and “not without considerable hesitation”, the judges found that a requirement to serve a sentence of six months rather than 12 months would more appropriately mark the way in which his situation was to be differentiated.

Conclusion

The judges were concerned that a very lengthy period of disqualification could, in some circumstances, serve as an impediment to rehabilitation. They reduced the period of disqualification from 20 years to 15 years. Mr O’R could apply for a restoration of the licence after he has served a disqualification period of seven-and-a-half years, and there would be the possibility that the licence could be restored after he has served a disqualification period of 10 years.

© Irish Legal News Ltd 2021



Other judgments by Mr Justice George Birmingham