Wednesday 30 August 2017

A note on the law: Manslaughter, dangerous cycling and ‘s35 Driving’

Manslaughter in English law is not a straightforward topic.  It can be broadly split into:
1. Cases where the Defendant has killed another person intending to kill or inflict serious injury but there are extenuating circumstances which meant that the one time mandatory death sentence (now mandatory life) for murder would have been somewhat harsh.  Although this could in theory be applicable where a collision is intended I give it no more consideration here.  It is often called voluntary manslaughter.
2. Cases where the Defendant has not intended death or serious injury but has either:
(a)    Caused another’s death by breaching a duty owed to another where the negligence is so gross as to amount to a serious crime (‘gross negligence manslaughter’).  All road users owe a duty to each other so gross negligence manslaughter can readily arise.
(b)   Committed an unlawful act which anyone with any sense would appreciate was dangerous in that it inflicted on the victim a risk of some injury.  This is known as ‘Constructive Manslaughter’.  Again this could apply to road traffic collisions.
Gross negligence manslaughter is sometimes, but very rarely, a charge brought against motorists.  Things used to be different and ‘motor manslaughter’ charges were more frequently brought.  In 1956 Parliament introduced a statutory offence which is the pre-cursor of our causing death by dangerous driving.  It is universally acknowledged that this was done because juries were proving reluctant to convict of ‘motor manslaughter’.  The new offence carried a different label but was to all intents and purposes the same crime.  The new offence also had a lower maximum penalty but this was irrelevant since a life sentence for manslaughter only in practice occurs in voluntary manslaughter cases.  The current maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving is 14 years which the Government proposes to increase to life.
Cycling offences of careless cycling and dangerous cycling do exist but no offences of causing death by careless or dangerous cycling.  Dangerous cycling is all about the way in which you ride a bicycle.  There is no equivalent to the dangerous driving definition in section 2A RTA which extends the definition to driving a motor vehicle in a dangerous state. 
A cyclist who is considered to have caused death by dangerous cycling may be charged with involuntary manslaughter.  However given the statutory definition of dangerous cycling this would have to entail riding the bicycle in an obviously and flagrantly dangerous manner.  There are probably no circumstances in which a cyclist who has committed the proposed offence of causing death by dangerous cycling has not also committed the offence of (gross negligence) manslaughter.  There is only therefore any point in introducing a statutory offence of causing death by dangerous cycling if (as was felt to be the case with motorists in the 1950s) guilty people are walking free because of a reluctance of a jury to convict.
A cyclist whose manner of riding has not caused death may still be charged with (constructive) manslaughter if he has committed some other offence, which anyone could see was dangerous and which has caused death.  The other offence could be one of a low order but if committing that offence is dangerous and causes death then you are liable to be convicted of manslaughter.  Cases of constructive manslaughter charges being brought against a motorist are very rare save possibly cases of assault where a motor vehicle was used as a weapon.  Reporters seldom distinguish between gross negligence and constructive manslaughter cases.  I can think only of one case in the constructive manslaughter category brought against a motorist.  This was an unsuccessful prosecution against a driver who opened a car door causing the death of Sam Harding, a cyclist.  I take this to have been a constructive manslaughter case as the Defendant had both blackened out his windows and opened the car door, both separate relatively minor offences.  The jury took an hour to acquit rather reinforcing that the threshold for the obviously dangerous ingredient of the offence is a very high one.  It is not sufficient that a safety related law is broken and that somebody dies in consequence.  Whether the Defendant in that case could or should have been charged with an offence under s 35 Offences against the Person Act 1861 is considered below.
The Offences against the Persons Act 1861 was a consolidating statute.  Section 35 reproduced a law originally to be found in a Georgian Statute governing Stagecoaches.  The wording is 18th century not, as is frequently suggested, Victorian.  The offence is worth setting out in full especially as it is often misquoted (even by the author of the strap-line to my recent Guardian article!) as ‘wanton and furious driving’ or even ‘fast and furious driving’.  It is not, it is either wanton or furious or wilful misconduct or wilful neglect any of which causes bodily harm:

There is no requirement in this offence that ‘other wilful misconduct’ be dangerous.
For as long as I can recall no prosecution has been mounted against a motorist for ‘other wilful misconduct’ or ‘wilful neglect’.  Only the ‘wanton or furious’ driving has been incurred and then only when the RTA offences are not available because the alleged offence has been thought to have been committed on private land. 
The charge is fairly regularly used against cyclists, but again until now relating to the standard of ‘driving’.  Have a look at what I said ages ago about the case of Darren Hall  In rejecting his appeal against a custodial sentence the Court of Appeal described his riding as ‘not far short of dangerous’.  This confirms that had it been dangerous it would have been gross negligence manslaughter.
‘Dangerous’ is rather a term of art in road traffic cases.  There is much to be said for clarifying its meaning as it relates to all road users.  Currently a lot of really very dangerous driving gets categorised as careless and this could be a whole separate and lengthy blogpost.  I intend to say no more about the Alliston case than that the jury verdicts are consistent with finding that his conduct was not so self-evidently dangerous as to amount to manslaughter but that he had been a person having charge of a vehicle whose wilful misconduct had caused death.
When I (or my strap line helper) say that a motorist would not have been charged with the section 35 offence that is because I have read frequently of cases where a person having charge of a vehicle has wilfully done something like blacken out windows, open car doors, driven on the pavement, exceeded a speed limit etc. etc. but this has not against a motorist been seized upon as wilful default or neglect justifying a s 35 charge.  Although the maximum term for section 35 is two years, imprisonment is a far more likely outcome than following conviction of a triable either way offence like causing death by careless driving (maximum 5 years but usually non-custodial).

I am not suggesting that a motorist with no brakes would not be prosecuted at all.  A motorist with no brakes (or even severely impaired brakes) would of course have to deal with the fact that mass and speeds mean that the danger is totally obvious on any conceivable view of what dangerous means.  Any persons responsible who are not driving will be charged with manslaughter, as in the Bath tipper truck tragedy, and any persons driving who ought to have known charged with dangerous driving under the s 2A definition of dangerous driving.  I just do not see the levels of danger as remotely comparable and neither it seems did the jury.  Perhaps the Bath and the Sam Harding case Defendants too, along with many other motorists, ought to have faced a s35 charge in case the more obvious one failed.

Wednesday 23 August 2017

The Alliston trial

A heavy handed prosecution against a cyclist for manslaughter has failed but a charge of ‘furious or wanton driving’ has succeeded.
In 2016 more than 400 pedestrians were killed on UK roads.  Each a terrible tragedy to those involved and almost all avoidable.  One of these casualties, Kim Briggs, died following a collision between herself and a teenaged cyclist, Charlie Alliston.  She was extraordinarily unfortunate.  Research indicates that 10% of pedestrians struck by a motor vehicle at 20 mph are killed.  A rider on a lightweight bike will have less than one tenth the mass and therefore kinetic energy and momentum of an average car and the speed of impact was said by the prosecution to be ‘up to 14 mph’.  Yet tragically the unsuccessful efforts of Mrs Briggs and Mr Alliston to avoid each other on 12th February 2016 led to her death from a brain injury.  This is a very rare occurrence indeed and has received much publicity.  We are inured to the 400 or so pedestrian deaths linked to motorised traffic but not to the vanishingly rare occasions that they are linked to bicycles.
It is also no coincidence that the one death of a pedestrian involving a cyclist is also the one case where a manslaughter charge has followed.  This is reported to be a first.  It is also one of the few cases where wanton or furious driving has been charged.  These are both offences triable only in the Crown Court and were no doubt selected in preference to summary offences (triable by magistrates) due to the perceived seriousness of the offending and its consequences.  Alliston could have been charged with any one or more of the lesser summary offences of breaching the Construction and Use Regulations, of dangerous cycling or of careless cycling.  Prosecutors appear to have wished to get around the fact that Parliament has not legislated for causing death by careless or dangerous cycling offences.
The allegation against Alliston essentially related to the absence of any front brake on his bicycle.  From reports of the evidence given at trial it seems clear that Mrs Briggs stepped out onto the road into the path of Mr Alliston.    Mr Alliston has always been adamant this was so (including in some very poorly judged on-line forum comments that he made in the days following the incident when Mrs Briggs lay in hospital) and the prosecution, who had access to CCTV and witnesses, did not contend otherwise.  Instead it was alleged that with a front brake Alliston would have been able to stop before any collision took place.
The bicycle concerned was designed and built for use on the track.  Track bicycles do not have gears or a free wheel.  If the rear wheel is spinning then so are the pedals and any attached legs.  They also, for sound safety reasons on the track, do not have front brakes.  Braking on a track bicycle is achieved by resisting the spinning of the back wheel with the legs.  Fixed rear wheels (or ‘fixies) are not confined to the track, they are increasingly used on the road though the road variant differs from the track bike in having a front brake.
The requirement for a front brake is set out in The Pedal Cycle (Construction and Use) Regulations 1983.  Regulation 7(1) provides that every bicycle must be equipped with at least one braking system.  Mr Alliston’s bicycle satisfied this test.  However because his saddle was more than 635 mm from the ground Alliston was also required by Regulation 7(b) to have ‘a braking system operating on the front wheel’.    He had no such front wheel brake and could have been prosecuted for a breach of this Regulation, a summary offence resulting in a fine. 
Front brakes are important on bicycles.  In an emergency a skilled cyclist will get all their stopping force from the front brake because of the effect of the bicycle and rider decelerating.  Unlike a car, or a heavy police-issue mountain bike, the limit of effective braking on dry level ground is reached at the point where the rear wheel lifts off the ground potentially pitching the rider over the handlebars.  Studies in David Wilson’s seminal work ‘Bicycling Science’ demonstrate that a deceleration of 0.5g is the maximum that a seated rider can risk before he goes over the handlebars.  Unlike a car driver a cyclist cannot safely achieve the limit of adhesion of the tyre to the road, which in the dry is typically about 0.8g.  Braking with the rear wheel alone can achieve only 0.256g before the rear wheel locks up and skids.  Wilson also cites reliable research that in wet weather conventional block on rim braking distances are increased by a factor of four. 
Expert evidence from the police for the prosecution was that Alliston had been going at 18mph (8 m/s) and that his braking distance was 12 metres.  From experiments on other bicycles, including a police mountain bike, it was alleged that with a front brake he would have been able to stop in 3 metres.  In cross-examination it was suggested to him that with a ‘butcher’s bike’ with good brakes, he could have avoided the collision.  There is no record that Alliston had his own expert to give evidence or that the risk of tipping over the handlebars was considered.  The 3 metre braking distance is frankly absurd.  Newtonian physics using Wilson’s calculated 0.5g yields 6.5 metres with the front brake and 13 metres without it.  The difference is a factor or two, not four.  Given that the prosecution case was that Alliston was 6.53 metres away when Mrs Briggs stepped out, this difference is crucial.  The Highway Code gives a typical stopping distance of 12 metres for a car driving at 20 mph, suggesting that if Mrs Briggs had stepped into the path of a ‘slow’ moving car the driver would not have been able to avoid her.  Like a driver Alliston has to be given some reaction and thinking time.  He shouted twice and gave evidence that he moved to pass behind her when she stepped backwards.  Any cyclist will confirm that quick steering may be preferable to emergency braking when avoiding a pedestrian.
Of course Alliston should have had a front brake.  He was unaware of the legal requirement for one and thought himself reasonably safe relying on rear braking.  He was wrong and deserves punishment for that offence.  Manslaughter though requires either gross negligence or that the Defendant committed an offence that was dangerous and caused death.  Dangerous has been taken, at least in a road traffic context, restrictively.  For example motorists whose speeding or failure to give way causes a fatal collision are far more likely to face charges of causing death by careless driving than they are manslaughter charges.  The risk Alliston presented to a pedestrian stepping out in front of him was no greater than that presented by a car doing 20 mph and his braking distance remained half that of a fully equipped road bike in the wet.  Presumably nobody suggests it is dangerous to ride in wet conditions.    Alliston’s dreadful post collision comments reveal that he was far too reliant upon other road users doing the right thing and that he should have been prepared to react to pedestrians moving in any direction.  Nonetheless the evidence gives rise to a significant possibility that he was reacting as best he could ‘in the agony of the moment’ in circumstances where charges would be unlikely against a motorist.
The charge of ‘wanton or furious’ driving is also puzzling.  Although the archaic 1861 wording could encompass more, it generally relates to speed.  Reports of the prosecution’s closing speech reveal this case to be no exception with reference to a ‘machine built for speed’ (apparently said without irony given what else is on our streets).  This may have been glossed with the rather circular argument that the speed was too high for a bicycle with no front brake.  On any objective view, 18mph is a cautious speed and on a busy London Street matching the speed of other traffic, rather than going much slower, is a wise precaution.  Any suggestion that it is too fast applies a peculiar double standard and would potentially criminalise many riders.   Alliston was cross examined about his lack of a safety helmet and his penchant for certain stunt riders which were said to demonstrate some unacceptable risk taking attitude.  However, notwithstanding the proliferation of CCTV throughout London, the prosecution had found not a jot of evidence that Alliston’s riding resembled that in an ‘alley cat’ movie.  None of this has any bearing, beyond the purely prejudicial, to a young man travelling at 18 mph down a busy London road.    Some press reports were full of language (‘ploughed into’ etc.) that is seldom seen when a car driver (or as was being dealt with in a nearby Court, a speeding motorcycle rider) runs down a pedestrian.  Alliston may not have revealed himself to be a very attractive character and no one can fail to feel anguish about the terrible waste of yet another life.  However there is a lot about the bringing of charges at this level, and the conviction for furious or wanton cycling to cause substantial disquiet notwithstanding Alliston’s acquittal on the manslaughter charge.  If it is going to make any meaningful contribution to the reduction of danger on the roads, our criminal justice system needs to recalibrate away from the prejudice that motoring is innocuous and cycling dangerous and towards controlling the behaviour of those imposing greatest risk.

Monday 20 March 2017

Legal Update Spring 2017

Contributory Negligence (1) undertaking a left turning vehicle
In McGeer v Macintosh (2017) the Court of Appeal had to consider the sadly common event of a left turning HGV colliding with a cyclist to the nearside on a city street (in this case Ellesmere Port).  The HGV had been at a set of traffic lights, indicating left, ahead of the Claimant on her bicycle.  Because of the length of his vehicle he straddled both a left/straight lane and a lane marked for turning right.  Immediately behind him was a car that obscured his rear left turn indicator.  He claimed to have looked in his left mirror before moving off when the light changed green in his favour.  The Claimant on her bicycle, travelling at no more than 16.5 mph undertook the car and then the lorry.  As she undertook the lorry its driver turned left and the collision occurred.
There was debate about whether the Claimant should have been visible in the driver’s mirror before he moved off.  There was certainty that she would have been visible after he moved off but immediately before he turned.  The Defendant disputed that he was liable at all but this was rejected.  He should have been aware of the potential for an undertaking cyclist and that his indicator may have been obscured by a following vehicle.  He should have checked his mirror before moving off and again before turning.  He was liable.
The Claimant though contributed to the collision.  She should not have made any assumption about the intended direction of the lorry.  The trial judge assessed her contribution at 30%.  The Defendant challenged this saying that the greater speed of the bicycle compared to the HGV made her responsibility the greater.   The Court of Appeal, in agreement with the trial Judge, had no difficulty rejecting this:
“I consider that whilst the judge had found that both parties were at fault in the respects identified by the judge, it was appropriate for him to take into account the causative potency of the HGV, given the likelihood of very serious injury to a cyclist in the event of a collision. Although Mr Herbert sought to discount this on the basis of the low speed of the HGV, I consider that the judge was entitled to find that it was potentially a very dangerous machine. Its size and bulk were such that in the event of collision it constituted a very serious danger to a person in the position of the claimant.”
The Court opined that this case raises no issue of law, precedent or other matters of general significance and that the result is of significance only to the parties.  However cases on the actual apportionment of liability where a cyclist has undertaken a left turning vehicle are thin on the ground and Defendants’ insurers will often seek a 50% or so reduction in such cases.  This decision reaffirms that the degree of hazard presented by the vehicle (great in the case of an HGV, very modest in the case of a bicycle) are very important factors when apportioning liability.

Contributory Negligence (2) Time trialling and failing to avoid an emergency created by another
In Rickson v Bhakar (2017) the High Court made a finding of contributory negligence of 20% against a claimant who was taking part in a time trial on the A27 dual carriageway.  The defendant driver had been travelling in the opposite direction and turned right through a gap in the central reservation into the Claimant’s path.  Although the claimant had swerved immediately before the collision it was found that he could have braked earlier.  As a consequence of his injuries the claimant was not in a position to explain what had occurred.  It was inferred that he either had his head down or was too focussed on his performance.  A tough lesson that even in the heat of competition a cyclist must be alert and ready to respond to the carelessness of other road users.

Potholes are of particular concern to cyclists.  The divergence of judicial opinion over the extent of a Highway Authority’s duty to maintain the roads is illustrated by the Court of Appeal decision in the case of Crawley v Barnsley MPC (2017).  This case involved a jogger at the weekend.  The majority of the Court of Appeal found that a Highway Authority should have in place a workable system for dealing with dangerous defects reported to them over the weekend.
Of interest more specifically to cyclists is a Surrey Coroner’s decision to make a ‘Prevention of Future Deaths’ report directing highway authorities to have specific regard to the dangers presented to cyclists by hazards anywhere in the road, and not just on cycle lanes/paths.  I will comment further once the PFD is published.

The discount rate
A significant development on the quantum of serious personal injury cases, including those affecting cyclists, is the Lord Chancellor's determination that the ‘discount’ rate whereby damages for future loss are adjusted due to receipt in advance of expenditure, be reduced from 2.5% to -0.75%.  The rate has been 2.5% since it was first set by the then Lord Chancellor in 2001.  Prior to 2001 the discount rate had been a matter for the Courts and when I started practice was as high as 4.5%.  The effect of the change is that damages for future loss sustained some years ahead (for example compensation for care needs required in the future) will be much greater.  To some extent this may be balanced by the fact that compensation for having to sink additional capital into housing to meet the needs of a disabled person are likely to be reduced or even, arguably, eliminated.
The insurance industry has been scathing about the change.  However if they had been paying attention to what has been happening in jurisdictions which apply English law, but where the Courts continue to set the discount rate, they will have noticed that negative rates have long been a feature.  The leading case was from Guernsey and just one year ago a client of mine benefitted from the Court of Appeal in Bermuda adopting the same approach.
A negative discount rate may appear counterintuitive.  It arises because the costs of, for example personal care, will increase with wage inflation.  In contrast investment in the most secure available investments, such as index linked gilts, will increase at a rate lower than wage inflation.  It is harsh to require a severely disabled claimant to take a market risk by investing in equities since she may end up investing at a peak and will have no alternative source of income from which to take advantage of any troughs.  Nor will she be able to defer realising investments to cover the wages of her carers.
Tantalisingly though the Lord Chancellor has indicated that the whole basis of her power to set the discount rate in the Damages Act will be the subject of further review.

Finally no discussion of the discount rate would be complete without mentioning the alternative, long favoured by the National Health Service, but also now more attractive to motor insurers, of providing for future needs by regular periodical payments indexed to a suitable measure of inflation.

Wednesday 7 December 2016

The Government’s Proposals on Sentencing Bad Drivers. Plenty of Retribution but No Deterrence

On 4th December, in time for the Sunday papers, the Government issued a press release entitled ‘Killer Drivers to Face Life Sentences’.  The text below that headline proclaims that ‘Government acts to introduce life sentences for causing death by dangerous driving’.  In fact the Consultation Paper issued by the Ministry of Justice on the same day invites views on proposals which include increasing the current maximum sentence of 14 years imprisonment for causing death by dangerous driving to a maximum of life imprisonment.  It seeks views on the same increase in the maximum sentence in relation to causing death by careless driving whilst under the influence of drink or drugs.  The latter offence incidentally surely already amounts to causing death by dangerous driving but is designed to circumvent a typical jury’s peculiar reluctance, in this area, to convict.
The somewhat hyperbolic press release presumably looks ahead to the Government acting once it gets the answers it expects to its consultation exercise relating to life imprisonment for these very worst offenders.  The proposals have been welcomed by many victims’ groups who have been understandably dismayed at the operation of the criminal justice system in the worst cases.  This is though all about retribution.  Retribution is not a bad concept in itself and to the extent that the proposals go some way to lessen the anger and frustration understandably experienced by many bereaved families they are to be welcomed. 
However, nobody is going to wake up the morning after these proposed changes are implemented and resolve that they will drive better because the maximum term of imprisonment is no longer limited to 14 years.  These proposals will do nothing to reduce levels of road danger imposed by bad drivers upon others and particularly upon vulnerable road users. They are an easy fix for a Government which wishes to appear tough without doing anything to stop bad driving in its tracks before it causes tragedy.  Any solace that they may provide for bereaved families are bound to be in large part offset by the constraints upon Judges which mean that sentences of life imprisonment are never in practice going to be handed out to those who kill unintentionally.   The best that can be said is that this will align the penalties with manslaughter (which of course causing death by dangerous driving already is, though the separate offence was required because juries cannot be relied upon to convict of manslaughter even in cases where the evidence of dangerous driving leading to death is very strong).  Judges are likely to be constrained to pass sentences that will appear soft compared to the maximum penalty and further angst may arise from that.
One welcome proposal is the creation of a new offence of causing serious injury through careless driving.  That this new offence is required is demonstrated by the tragic case of Mary Bowers, the journalist who suffered catastrophic brain injuries but lived following being run down by an HGV.  The driver was acquitted of causing serious injury by dangerous driving.  Instead he was convicted of careless driving, a minor offence with no draconian sentencing option.  Having an alternative option of causing serious injury by careless driving will fill a gap and enable a Judge where the standard of driving has been close to dangerous to sentence appropriately.  However the proposed 2 or 3 year maximum penalty is one I would argue against.  This should be a summary offence with a maximum imprisonment of 6 months.  It would then only get to a jury when associated with a charge of dangerous driving.  Were it a more serious triable either way offence then large quantities of cases currently tried in the Magistrates’ Courts would be sent, at the election of the Defendant, to a Crown Court with a hope of attracting the empathy of a jury.  Some police forces and CPS regions have a policy of only prosecuting careless driving where there has been injury so the scale of this proposed change should not be underestimated.  In the interests of deterrence I suggest that we should be willing to sacrifice an element of retribution.  It is highly doubtful that many, if any, drivers who cause serious injury by careless driving will be imprisoned for terms exceeding 6 months (the power available to Magistrates).  Why then give them the option of a jury trial?  Indeed I have previously argued we should go the opposite way and downgrade dangerous driving which causes no injury to a summary offence so that the culprits are more speedily and reliably dealt with and taken off the roads.
A further proposal is minimum driving bans.  This is clearly required but not only in the worst cases.  We have far too many potentially lethal drivers allowed back onto the roads notwithstanding the existing legislation.  This is scandalous and the Consultation Paper ought to be doing away with ‘special reasons’ and ‘exceptional hardship’ pleas to avoid an otherwise mandatory disqualification.  If you can afford it you can get a specialist lawyer to press all the right buttons to ensure you get to continue to drive.  This is an industry that must be snuffed out on the basis that an offender should have thought about the consequences of losing his licence before committing the offence.
Overall retribution is fine, though the retribution may be more illusory, than real.  However this is a long promised review of driving offences and sentencing more generally.  It is a great pity there is nothing there that might provide real deterrence.  Real deterrence involves increasing the chance of being caught and punished for the poor driving behaviour that is far too widespread before, often as an outcome of pure chance, it causes devastation.

We need a real review of what is being done at the opposite end of the scale.  Increasing penalties for use of mobile devices (a separate Government proposal) is a useful start but a dramatically increased rate of detection and the unavailability of special pleading are essential concomitants.  The Government should find time and resources for real support of the initiatives of the police in the West Midlands and in Camden which focus on poor and intimidatory driving in the vicinity of the most vulnerable.  The Consultation paper observes that the numbers of those killed on the roads has been declining since the 1960s.  It does not include the sad fact that this is not true of vulnerable road users.  Much further positive action is required to address this.

Monday 19 September 2016

Leigh Day Helli-va Ride

This Thursday evening a group of hardy young lawyers from Leigh Day are going to set out from Hoddesdon in Herts to start a clockwise arc down to Sevenoaks, Kent which will begin the trace of a giant 'H' inside a circle, a heli-pad sign, covering the area that the London Air Ambulance Service serves.

These lawyers are the ones likely to be looking after your financial interests if you are both unlucky enough to be involved in a collision and are a member of British Cycling, so it is nice to know not only that they can cycle but that they are superhuman too.  The ride is just over 300 miles and the team will be riding round the clock aiming to finish in 19 hours.  A remarkable pace given how much of the ride is in congested London.

Not being superhuman - I cannot do 300 miles and I cannot ride through the night and through the following day without being a liability to myself and others - I am planning merely to do the second half.  As dawn breaks on Friday morning I will link up with them just west of Epsom to complete the job.

I am apprehensive about doing half what they are doing.  Even 150 miles is the longest ride I have ever done.   So, as they are doing twice that, they really do deserve support.  So do not sponsor me sponsor them.

Also the cause is a hugely admirable one.  The London Ambulance Service relies upon charitable fund raising of this sort.  They will be there for you if you crash in London.  On a personal note I am extremely lucky they were there for me on 4th January 2014 when I came down very hard during the Imperial Winter Series at Hillingdon.

So do please support, the link is here:

Wednesday 7 September 2016

The Criminal Justice System; How it fails us and how it needs reform

Nobody could fail to be deeply moved by hearing, as I did on Radio 4 this morning, the relatives of victims killed by dangerous drivers speaking about how they felt the killers responsible should face charges of manslaughter rather than death by dangerous driving.  The amazing charity, Roadpeace, has been calling for this for years and is now, due to recent events, at last getting somewhere with Prime Minister May indicating at today’s Prime Minister’s Questions that the Department of Justice are to review the laws relating to those who cause death by dangerous driving.
I welcome this of course.  However what appears to me to be at least as important is that the killer of Lee Martin (the cyclist whose brother was on Radio 4) was a serial offender who had been caught on 8 previous occasions texting whilst driving.  On the last such occasion just 6 weeks before he killed Lee Martin, Christopher Gard had pleaded with magistrates that he should be permitted to keep his licence to drive because otherwise he would suffer ‘special hardship’.  It is a sad sad indictment of the way in which the criminal justice system operates in relation to such relatively low level offending that his plea succeeded.
This is the worst manifestation yet of the ‘no harm done’ mentality: he was permitted to continue to drive and therefore to kill.
Gard probably thought he was a safe driver, almost every driver does.  Yes, he texted all the time as he drove but until he ran down Lee Martin no harm done and no really serious consequences to him.  Equally with drivers who close pass cyclists and/or speed excessively (I attempted unsuccessfully once to prosecute one) no harm done so why any fuss?
I heard the piece on Radio 4 just after I had written a piece for the Telegraph about the Jeremy Vine incident.  Jeremy said he reported the matter to the police because the woman involved would one day harm somebody.  He is right.  Behaviour such as that in his video and such as that exhibited by Gard leading to his previous attendances before magistrates needs to be checked BEFORE they kill.  That is why, rightly or wrongly, I expended enormous time and energy in prosecuting a man who passed me at 50-60 mph in a 30 mph zone with a clearance of 0.7 metres.  No harm done on that occasion but what about next time?
Were my life to be cut short by an offender who had transgressed before, my ghost would be haunting the people who failed to act upon the earlier minor transgressions when ‘no harm was done’ rather than those whose decisions led to nine rather than twelve years imprisonment when it was too late to save me.
I place prevention and deterrence well above retribution.  I would prefer the high likelihood of relatively minor punishment (disqualification) over the remote chance of high punishment.  It probably seemed to Gard very unlikely he would kill.  No doubt he had been texting and driving for years without serious comeback.  He would have been more likely to be deterred by meaningful punishment for minor infraction than the remote prospect of serious punishment if he killed.
This is why I believe the review should not just look at throwing the book at the worst offenders but also at making a serious effort to crack down on relatively low level offenders who have not yet killed but whose casual texting, close-passing, speeding etc. increases the risk that they will kill or seriously harm in the future.  We have made some progress in recognising that drink drivers need to be taken off the road even if ‘no harm done’.  Do let us extend this and take away the privilege of driving from those who are likely to harm.  A review of the absurd system of pleading ‘special reasons’ to keep a licence to drive notwithstanding serial offending would be a useful start.  In addition the equally absurd view adopted by many police forces that if there is no injury due to careless or dangerous driving then it is not in the public interest to prosecute must be jettisoned.

Stiffer sentencing for manslaughter / dangerous driving captures the public mood and politicians’ interest but let us not forget that the kid-glove treatment of relatively minor offending left Gard to kill Lee Martin in the first place.

Saturday 9 April 2016

I have not yet had my mind changed on jury trials

My last piece on jury trial in dangerous driving cases has sparked some lively debate.  I have enjoyed some interesting discussion with well-informed people some of whom agree some do not, as of course is their unqualified right.
It is not a piece that has gone down well with all my colleagues practising at the criminal bar.  It is perhaps worth my making the following points by way of response.
We all have a right to a fair trial.  I agree that if we are at risk of going to prison for a long stretch we should all have the right to a jury.  However it is possible to have a fair trial without a jury.  In Scotland (for example) the Defendant has no right to insist on a jury in offences triable either way like dangerous driving.  One possible solution may be to leave the Magistrates with the option of determining mode of trial and selecting summary trial where they are satisfied their powers of punishment are sufficient.  International War Crimes are not tried by juries.  Lack of jury does not equate to lack of justice.
There has been a suggestion that as I am not a Criminal Lawyer I have no right to voice my opinion on criminal law and procedure.  I refute that.  I am a personal injury lawyer who often meets the spouses, parents and children of those killed on our roads as well as other victims of bad driving.  I have sufficient perspective to appreciate that dissatisfaction with the current system is close to universal amongst the victims of such crime.  I do not pretend to be sure about what the solutions are but looking at speedy, effective and affordable ways of parting dangerous drivers from their licences seems to me a valid start.  Clearly this is no laughing matter and some of the flippancy I have encountered is deeply inappropriate.  I have never claimed to be a criminal lawyer and in an open democratic society we are all entitled to express our views on crime and the criminal process.  I do not scoff at those who express views relating to the areas of law in which I practice.
Alongside complaining of my lack of experience in criminal law is the complaint that I have recent experience of prosecuting a dangerous driving case which led to an acquittal.   Again I have never hid that and I cheerfully concede that I think that the Magistrates’ Court would have been a more appropriate place to have had a trial in that case.  It would unquestionably have been faster and much cheaper (a relevant factor perhaps since by way of distraction complaint is made about my costs of so doing).  Incidentally I have been unfailingly polite to those who wish to see their own favoured change in the current law on the recoverability of such costs and even argue (unlike me) that their proposed changes should act retrospectively.
There has been innuendo that my private prosecution should never have been brought.  That too I refute.  There are numerous safeguards to prevent private prosecutions where the evidence is not strong, or the public interest not served, from going to a jury.   Criminal lawyers understand this but one or two persist in asserting that the fact that the police did not prosecute implies that I should not have done.  The fact is that acquittals against the strength of the evidence trickle down through the system to affect decisions to charge.
It has been suggested I have no evidence to support my arguments and/or that I have singled out driving for no good reason.  There have been plenty of cases involving motorists and vulnerable road victims where the results have been disquieting and I cover very many of them in my blog.  My article expressly explains that the ‘There but for the grace of God’ empathy applies peculiarly to driving cases.  Since writing the piece I have been contacted by many people engaged in the criminal justice process in just about every way whose experiences confirm there is a problem to be addressed.

I am very open to persuasion that my views are wrong but so far have seen far more heat than light expressed by those content with the status quo.  I think I have dealt with most of their arguments as I understand them.