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.


  1. Agreed entirely. In your experience, is a habitual transgressor likely to stop driving just because they have been banned?

    1. We need to invest in technology to make it very likely that disqualified drivers get caught and their vehicles crushed.

  2. In 2004 - in clear daylight, on a road running between open heath either side so excellent visibility - someone smashed into the back of my car with such force the whole bodywork of my car was shunted forward -

    I could not open my driver-side door at all and just about managed to force open the passenger-side door to get out.

    I'm certain I would have been catapulted through the windscreen if I hadn't been wearing a seatbelt. My car was a write off and so was the car that had hit me...

    the occupants of that other car were the driver, an adult passenger and a baby...

    the adult passenger complained of a head injury and the driver called an ambulance which attended.

    The police were called and took our details and, despite the other driver was clearly at fault, I felt humiliated having to take a roadside breath test too (I didn't drink alcohol anyway but it was embarassing.

    I subsequently received a form from the police with boxes giving options for action, I ticked 'Court'.

    I then received a letter from the police saying they were not taking any action. Nothing at all.

    The impact of the crash was so great that two cars were write-offs, the other car hit my car in the centre at the back so the driver cannot have been paying any attention to the road and had made no attempt to brake or swerve, the other driver had in the car a BABY and an adult passenger who complained of a head injury...

    and the police decided this was so trivial they didn't need to take any action at all against the driver.

  3. This reminded me of the recent West Midlands Police traffic blog post where they are announcing a new initiative.

    "The cycling traffic officer when passed too close will let the officer up the road know, who will in turn stop the motorist. Then the offender will be given a choice, prosecution or 15 minutes spent being educated as to the correct way to pass a cyclist."

    Along with this if the problems persist they will have "Days without education" which are as above but without the 15 minutes education option.

    I really hope this will help improve driving around cyclists in the area, and maybe even driving in general.

  4. Excuse my ignorance, why is there an offence of death by dangerous driving, I don't believe there is an offence of death by dangerous shooting?

  5. There is an offence of causing death by dangerous (and careless) driving because juries were so reluctant to convict for manslaughter. Today the sentences for causing death by driving are pretty well aligned with sentences for negligent manslaughter, so I don't see a practical reason for using manslaughter.

    The main problem today is getting juries to convict even for causing death by driving, so I don't see that going back to the even more emotive manslaughter charge is going to help, until there is a widespread change in attitudes.

    The other problem in the law, as I see it, is that when the outcome of the careless/dangerous driving falls short of death, (or in some cases very serious injury,) then there is a lack of appropriately graded offences/sentences comparable to other offences of violence.

    Somehow we have too many offences and they fail to cover everything. There'd be more consistency if there was one basic offence, eg driving falling short of acceptable standards, and then seriousness was dealt with through sentencing, all the way to death. That makes it a lot harder for juries to downgrade the offence, and leaves sentencing much more in the hands of judges. There also needs to be much clearer legal definitions on what is driving falling short of acceptable standards, because currently juries fail to find guilt for things that are objectively poor driving, and can get away with it because of a lack of objective standards.

    1. One (I) would have thought that the standard to pass the driving test would be THE benchmark, with reference made to the Highway Code, but that doesn't seem to be the case.