A young woman who drove through a red light and fatally knocked down a pedestrian has had her driving ban reduced by two years, after the Court of Appeal found that a since overturned interpretation of the law for first time careless driving offenders “must have worked its way into the reasoning” of the sentencing judge.
Letitia Barry (23) of Rivermeade Park, St Margaret’s, Dublin, pleaded guilty to driving a car without due care and attention, causing the death of John Byrne at a pedestrian crossing at Whitestown Road, in Rush, Co Dublin on June 7th, 2019.
Barry was prosecuted under Section 52(2) of the Road Traffic Act 1961 and sentenced to eight months’ imprisonment, which was fully suspended. Judge Melanie Greally also imposed a six-year driving ban at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court on February 23rd, 2022.
The court heard that local man John Byrne (39), who had Down’s Syndrome, had used the road crossing many times before and always waited for the green light before crossing. An analysis of the lights sequencing indicated that there was a gap of six seconds between the vehicular lights going red and the pedestrian light going green.
Mr Byrne was flipped into the air and his head hit the kerb. He was brought to hospital but died as a result of the head injuries he sustained.
Barry stayed at the scene after the collision and she and other members of the public tried to provide some comfort to Mr Byrne with blankets.
At the sentencing hearing, the judge was informed that the consequential disqualification order from holding a driving licence for a conviction for such an offence was a mandatory four years.
However, following a decision in the Court of Appeal in a separate case last October it was held that unless a person has two or more previous convictions for careless driving, the sentencing judge was not required to treat a first conviction for careless driving causing death or serious injury as being a ‘consequential disqualification’ which would mandate a four-year ban.
At the Court of Appeal on Thursday, David Staunton BL for the appellant, said that Barry, who pleaded guilty, had no previous convictions for careless driving and was a young mother who worked in childcare.
The barrister said Barry had excellent employment and character references.
A garda report noted that the location of “street furniture”, such as lamp standards and the traffic lights, had a tendency to obscure pedestrians from drivers at the point at which Mr Byrne had been standing.
The report stated the layout was not in accordance with the relative manual for the ideal placement of street furniture.
Mr Staunton said there had been no explanation by the trial judge on the reason for the six-year suspension. Mr Staunton asked the court to consider, if the sentencing judge was operating on a “baseline” of four years, would the ban still be six if that mandatory assumption was removed? Counsel described the matter as a “sad and tragic case”.
The barrister said that there was no allegation regarding speed and that Barry had a full and clean licence at the time.
“Everyone was extremely upset about what occurred. Mr Byrne was well-known in the locality,” he said.
Ms Justice Isobel Kennedy said that the death of Mr Byrne had a “terrible impact” on his family and the wider community.
Eoghan Cole BL, for the State, said the trial judge had considered the minimum period and still considered the offence as meriting a six-year ban for what he described as “grossly incompetent” driving.
Mr Cole said the trial judge said Mr Byrne was “in no way” responsible for the accident and that the light had been red for six seconds before the “tragic” collision.
Mr Cole said that there had been “no appeal to say it wasn’t the proper charge”, relating to the “fitness and quality of driving against Barry”.
“It’s not a case where there could be no ban. It’s a death case. It’s sad and tragic and utterly avoidable,” said Mr Cole.
Mr Justice George Birmingham said that it had been previously understood that there was a mandatory disqualification as a consequence of the offence when the case reached the circuit court.
“The decision of this court comes to a different conclusion. Whether there should or not be a ban or the duration of the ban was a matter for discretion for the court dealing with it,” he said.
“The offence of careless driving causing harm or serious death is very serious and significant and has very grave consequences for the victim and the family of that victim, and for all of those who feature in each case.
“The impacts are real, and it is not to be understood that we are not conscious of that,” said Mr Justice Birmingham, adding that the case was “particularly harrowing”.
Mr Justice Birmingham said the layout of the junction had been “certainly sub-optimal” and said Barry had been of “impeccable previous character”.
However, the judge said: “The driver drove through a crossing without realising there were lights there and that falls at the very serious end of careless driving.
“Six years of disqualification was fifty per cent in excess of the statutory ban. The question is whether that figure would be arrived at even without the understanding of the ban,” he said.
Mr Justice Birmingham said that the “statutory ban must have worked its way into the reasoning” of the sentencing judge and therefore the court would quash the six-year ban and substitute one of four years in the “particularly tragic circumstances”.
A relative of Mr Byrne told the sentence hearing that the death of their “son, brother and uncle” has irrevocably changed the lives of his family. She said that Mr Byrne was a gentle, kind and very sociable man who had many friends in the area and a wide range of interests, including discos and GAA.
Sentencing Judge Melanie Greally said everything said about Mr Byrne “conveyed a vivid picture of him as a loveable, larger than life young man”. She said he “brought brightness into the lives of others” and it is no surprise “the void he has left is enormous”.