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Miss Jo Martinson

Volume 401: debated on Wednesday 19 March 2003

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

4.15 pm

There can be nothing worse than to lose a child. It is a nightmare that we all dread, but for the Martinson family, that nightmare has turned into reality. The newspaper headlines at the time read, "Gifted Joanna died after road smash". The story said:

"Gifted university student Joanna Martinson was killed after a horror smash when her jeep ploughed into a tree and a wall, an inquest has decided."
However, that does not really tell one anything about the nightmare that the family has experienced. I know that the Minister will do everything that she possibly can to ensure that the issues that I raise this afternoon are considered properly. For Jo's parents Dawn and Chris, her sister Lucy, her brother Guy and her boyfriend Adam, the experience has been traumatic. Nothing that I say could bring Jo back, but I hope that I can give the family some comfort in the knowledge that the mother of Parliaments takes the loss of a loved one very seriously.

On 7 November 2001, at approximately 1.15, Jo was driving a Suzuki car along Hamlet Court road, which happens to be near where I live. It is not easy to drive quickly through that area, which is close to traffic lights and usually quite congested. Police have confirmed that the Suzuki was well maintained, had no mechanical defect and was travelling at 25 mph at the most.

Jo held a full driving licence and was insured to drive, and the car had a valid MOT certificate. Jo and her boyfriend, Adam Seomore, were both wearing seat belts. She was fit, in good health and not under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Adam confirmed that there was no harsh acceleration, no high engine revs and no sharp braking. He was looking out of the nearside passenger window when he became aware that the car had swerved sideways and was sliding towards a tree. Jo was gripping the steering wheel with both hands. Adam did not see what caused Jo to swerve, but recalls clearly that she was not distracted by anything in the car, such as a radio, conversation or a telephone. She was a scrupulously careful driver.

There were seven witnesses other than professionals. Adam, for the obvious reason that he was concussed, did not see what happened. Two witnesses arrived after the crash. Two of the witnesses implicate a large white DAF van, and its driver in particular, in the sequence of events that caused Jo's death, and two make no mention of the van's presence at all, yet there is no question but that the van was there. As police officers and a traffic warden at the scene of the crash observed, it was parked prominently, in a most dangerous manner, with a fraudulent vehicle excise duty disc.

A fixed penalty parking ticket was issued at 2.17 pm, and subsequently it was learned that the van's owner, a Mr. X, was a provisional driving licence holder with a medical defect—he had one eye—about which he had not notified the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. He had no insurance and no MOT certificate. Furthermore, his van was found to have serious and dangerous defects and was subsequently prohibited by the police. No explanation has been offered for Jo's sudden swerve to the left other than by the two witnesses implicating the van and the driver. The police clearly regarded that to be valid, as they arrested Mr. X on suspicion of causing death by dangerous driving and failing to stop and report an accident. The coroner took a similar view when, on 11 April, having heard the first of the two witnesses giving evidence, he adjourned the inquest to refer the matter back to the Crown Prosecution Service.

The evidence of witness C is that he was walking along Hamlet Court road at the time of the crash when he saw a tatty and dented van reverse from a side road into Hamlet Court road and towards Jo. Witness C says that the driver was reversing with the door open, leaning out to look behind him, because the wing mirror was smashed. He saw the van continue to reverse briskly as Jo approached. He estimated her speed to be at the most 25 mph. C then heard Jo's tyres skid, and watched the car spin in the road before sliding towards a tree and wall. It was November and the weather was inclement. The tree impacted into the driver's door by approximately 40 cm. C describes the van driver showing panic and concern and driving the van back into the side road. He says that he would be able to recognise the van driver again.

Sadly, from the outset, the CPS regarded C as a potentially unreliable witness. He conceded that he had bad nerves and had had a breakdown some years ago. It is fair to say that some of the detail of his evidence is confused—for instance, the time of the accident and how far he was from the impact. However, the substance of his evidence at the inquest was consistent, credible and sufficient enough for the coroner to regard it as reason to adjourn.

There is another witness, witness H, who is known to witness C. He approached the accident scene shortly after the crash and spoke to witness C, who was, by that time, extremely distressed and told him what he had seen. Witness H then approached the van driver and spoke to him. He recognised the driver, having bought items from his second-hand shops and having seen him driving the van on previous occasions.

The van driver told witness H that he had been reversing into Hamlet Court road—he actually told him that—when he heard Jo crash behind him. He acknowledged to witness H that he had driven his van back into Windsor road, then gone to look at Jo in the wreckage. Witness H described him as agitated and anxious to move his van away. We are told that Mr. X has since denied driving the van that day.

On the basis of that evidence, the Martinson family were advised that there were sufficient grounds for a prosecution of Mr. X, at least on a charge of careless driving. Having initially decided not to prosecute, the CPS reviewed the file on three occasions, once at the request of a senior police officer, then at the request of the Martinsons' solicitor and again on the direction of the coroner. The only consequence has been a court appearance by Mr. X on 14 May last year on a charge relating to defective brakes.

When the Martinson family phoned the criminal justice unit on 15 May to question whether Mr. X might still be charged with having had no insurance, no licence and the other matters, they were told that the matter was academic, as the time limit of six months had lapsed by one week. That was obviously cruel news to give to the family. Members of the family, setting aside their feelings, are appalled by what they perceive to be the perversity and apparent negligence in that case. Characteristically for an agency that attracts national criticism—sometimes unfairly, but on occasion with merit—although the Crown Prosecution Service granted the Martinsons' solicitors access to the papers necessary to pursue a private prosecution, it was not prepared to test its budget or its competence in the pursuit of justice.

I shall speak about the role of the CPS in private prosecutions. The family were going to launch a private prosecution, but decided not to do so. I believe that the guiding factor was that the family found everything most traumatic, especially having to appear in court. The case has been going on for 18 months. The family were also concerned about the quality of the evidence that the witnesses might give.

The family do not seek a scapegoat, but they want justice to be seen to be done. I plead with the Minister. I know how difficult it must be, and I know that she will do everything that she can.

4.26 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.40 pm

On resuming—

I say again that I realise how difficult this is for the Minister and her office, but the family would desperately like to see whether there is some way of reopening the case. They feel very strongly that Mr. X was, directly or indirectly, responsible for the accident. They do not want anyone to be used as a scapegoat, but they very much want justice for Jo.

I have correspondence from the Director of Public Prosecutions. As it is not marked "private and confidential", I want to share with hon. Members the tone of the correspondence that resulted from my raising several issues about the investigation of Jo's death. In a letter, Mr. Calvert-Smith says:
"Essex Police laid informations before Southend Magistrates' Court, alleging that"
Mr. X
"had used his vehicle on 7 November 2001 without insurance, without having a test certificate and with defective brakes. The police then sent a file of evidence relating to these motoring offences to the Crown Prosecution Service for review.
A senior crown prosecutor reviewed the evidence and discovered that the information alleging no insurance had been laid out of time. The offence was alleged to have been committed on 7 November 2001 but the police did not lay the information until 24 May 2002, seventeen days after the six month limitation had expired."
It is not me saying that, but the Director of Public Prosecutions at the Crown Prosecution Service. The letter continues:
"Furthermore, it could not be argued that the police were unaware of the insurance matter during the currency of the limitation period and therefore this offence could not proceed further."
The letter goes on:
"I can confirm that the Crown Prosecution Service has never been asked to advise on any other offences relating to"
Mr. X
"and, as I understand it, Essex Police have not commenced proceedings regarding the other offences mentioned by Mrs. Martinson in her letter of 21 August 2002."
The sole issue to be addressed is Mr. X's admission to criminal offences, as recorded by the police in witness statements relating to charges that were never brought. By his own admission, Mr. X had driven for many years without a full driving licence. That is incredible. He had driven, despite a serious visual defect. Originally, he told the police that he had notified the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, but later accepted that he had lied. He had driven and owned a van displaying a fraudulent tax disc, and he had driven and owned an unroadworthy vehicle, described by police as "heavily used", "generally uncared for", with a braking system that was "seriously defective" and a recorded mileage that
"may not be an accurate reflection … given its age and condition."
A prohibition order was issued because the braking defect made its use on any road dangerous by any definition.

What really upset the Martinson family beyond belief was that they heard Mr. X joke about Jo's death in the witness box, and heard from a witness that he walked away from the wreckage of Jo's car. By any measure the family have been restrained. Mr. Calvert-Smith attempts to shift responsibility to the police for failing to prosecute. His letter states that
"in advising the Police there was insufficient evidence to support any charges relating to Miss Martinson's death, the reviewing crown prosecutor did advise that the other Road Traffic Act offences relating to Mr. X's vehicle were made out … It remains the responsibility of the Police to start proceedings."
Somewhere between the two agencies must rest responsibility for an incompetence that has protracted and exacerbated the difficult time for the Martinson family.

What happened to Mr. X? He was given a fine of £60. If I were found guilty of not paying the congestion charge by midnight, I would be fined £80. It is outrageous that Mr. X, who has flouted the law, has been allowed to get away with it.

In conclusion, I can do nothing better than refer to the obituary in the university publication, which said:
"Jo will be remembered as being academically able, enthusiastic about her degree and extremely supportive of her fellow students. Most importantly, however, those who knew her will recall her vivacious personality, her warm and welcoming smile and how much they enjoyed being in her company."
I owe it to Jo, as her Member of Parliament, to see that justice is done and I know that the Minister will do her very best to ensure that it is.

4.47 pm

This debate is about the Crown Prosecution Service's action on the death of Jo Martinson. When reviewing the file of case papers, I came across the comments of Oxford Brookes university when it reported her tragic death to her fellow students. Jo Martinson's life was cut short and her friends, her brother and sister and her parents have suffered the greatest loss possible. Her parents, through their Member of Parliament, want answers to their questions. They want to know how she came to be killed at such a tragically young age and they want justice. They are entitled to nothing less. There will be no easy answers, but I have agreed to work with their Member of Parliament, the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). We are determined to do what we can to ensure that no stone is left unturned in this case.

As Solicitor-General, I assist the Attorney-General in superintending the Crown Prosecution Service. It is operationally independent, but through me, it is accountable to the House. I shall set out my understanding of the situation through my examination of the file and through talking to the relevant CPS department. I will make it my business to ensure that any points that remain unanswered or in dispute between us at the end of this short debate will be pursued until they are fully, properly and consistently answered.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we have no interest in passing matters between the CPS or the police. We must ensure that what happened is understood fully and, as far as we can, sort everything out. At the very least we need answers, and we will endeavour to give them.

To assist that process, I want to convey, through the hon. Member for Southend, West, the offer of the chief Crown prosecutor John Bell to meet Mr. and Mrs. Martinson to discuss any further matters that arise in the case. I know that Mrs. Martinson is a magistrate, so she fully understands how the criminal justice system should operate.

From what the hon. Gentleman said, much of what happened appears to be commonly acknowledged. As I understand it, at around 1.15 pm on 7 November 2001 at Windsor road, Westcliff-on-Sea, Jo Martinson was driving a Suzuki car that swerved and struck a wall and a tree. She was severely injured and died in hospital a week later. There was one passenger in the Suzuki, sitting in the front passenger seat, whose name was Adam Seomore. He gave a detailed statement to the police but was unable to explain why Jo Martinson swerved into the wall; as the hon. Member for Southend, West explained, he was concussed. It is commonly agreed that the vehicle was not travelling fast, but was below the 30 mph speed limit. Although the road surface was wet because it had rained recently, visibility was good.

Initially, perplexingly, no other vehicle appeared to be involved in the accident. When police arrived at the scene, they were not made aware of any other vehicle. Statements were taken from six 'witnesses, and those who saw the accident, with one exception, described the vehicle swerving into the wall but made no mention of another vehicle being involved. However, a witness, Mr. C, approached the police eight days later to implicate a white Leyland van that he had seen backing out from a driveway, which might have caused Jo Martinson's Suzuki to swerve.

A second witness, Mr. H, had not seen the accident, but had come upon the aftermath. He was a friend and neighbour of Mr. C and approached the police after speaking to Mr. C about the accident. Mr. H claimed to have spoken to the van driver after the accident and said that he thought that, as the hon. Gentleman said, he appeared anxious. He said that the van driver had admitted to backing out at the time of the accident. The van driver had parked and left the vehicle unattended, which is how the police found it when they arrived.

Coincidentally, a parking attendant who arrived at the scene of the accident after the collision happened noted that the van had been left parked on double yellow lines, with the rear end overhanging the give way line. She issued a fixed penalty notice. In addition, a police officer pointed out to her that the vehicle had a fraudulent tax disc, but as the hon. Gentleman said, no action appears to have been taken. I have made inquiries and I am not entirely satisfied about why that happened. It should have been followed up and prosecuted, but it was not. I know that that sounds unsatisfactory, but I am not yet able to say why. However, I undertake to do so, either in a parliamentary reply or in a letter to the hon. Gentleman.

As a result of the later statements by Mr. C and Mr. H, the police were aware that the van was suspected to have been involved in the accident. On 21 November the police stopped Mr. X when he was driving in the van, which he owned, and took it away for examination. On 26 November, Mr. X was arrested and taken to Southend police station for questioning. In interview, he denied any involvement in the accident. He was interviewed again on 11 January 2002 and maintained his original story, although as the hon. Gentleman said, he admitted other offences relating to the deplorable condition of the vehicle and its lack of documentation.

The police and the CPS lawyer, Keith Rylands—an experienced senior Crown prosecutor—had an initial case conference mainly to focus on whether it would be possible to mount a charge of causing death by dangerous or careless driving. The police file for advice was then submitted in writing to the CPS on 13 February and considered again by Keith Rylands. He weighed up all the evidence and reviewed the papers, and concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to make a conviction relating to the accident more likely than not. The evidence from the two later witnesses, Mr. C and Mr. H, was weighed up, but its inconsistencies and the lack of other witnesses weakened it. For example, Mr. C claimed in his first statement to have been 4 ft from the accident, but later admitted to being approximately 50 yds away. His statement contained other inconsistencies. I am not suggesting that he did not see what he said he saw, but such factors would undermine the strength of his evidence, and it would be less likely to withstand a cross-examination by the defence and thus lead to a conviction.

Mr. C also suffered from a nervous disorder, and he had come forward with evidence late in the day after seeing a news report of the accident. Again, I am not suggesting that he did not see what he said he saw. However, so far as proof in court is concerned, those factors tend to weaken and undermine evidence. Keith Rylands advised the police that there was insufficient evidence to charge the driver with causing death by either dangerous or careless driving. However, on the other motoring offences, the police were advised that there was sufficient evidence to charge on the following counts: driving without a full licence, driving with a disability—Mr. X only had one eye, which had not been notified—driving with defective brakes, and driving with no insurance and no MOT. The police were advised that there was sufficient evidence to prosecute on those counts, and the file was returned to them so that they could put papers to the inquest and instigate prosecutions for those five offences.

On 28 March 2002 the police laid information at Southend magistrates court for only two offences: driving a motor vehicle with a defective brake on 7 November, the day of the accident; and using a motor vehicle with no MOT. It appears that the police did not lay information on the other three offences at that stage. The CPS did not notice the error. The information on the two offences was laid in time, as the first court date was 23 April 2002. On 24 May 2002 further information was laid by the police, and lack of insurance was added to the list of offences. The defendant pleaded not guilty, and the case was scheduled for trial on 28 August 2002. On that date, the CPS offered no evidence on the allegations of defective brakes and no insurance. The defendant pleaded guilty to having no MOT and, as the hon. Gentleman said, was fined £60 with £35 costs.

In April 2002, following the start of the inquest, the coroner adjourned its conclusion to consult with the head of the CPS trials unit, Chris McCann, who was asked to review the papers with a view to starting prosecutions for offences relating to the accident. He reviewed the evidence, and came to the same conclusion as Keith Rylands. Chris McCann was conscious of the nearing statutory time limit, and, after consultation with the defence solicitor, who was to take counsel's advice, he arranged for Essex police staff to lay information for careless driving and for failing to stop and report, so that the case could be kept open in case the family wanted to take out a private prosecution.

I shall now address the CPS's decisions. It is plain that there was insufficient evidence to enable the CPS to mount a prosecution for causing death by dangerous or careless driving that would comply with the code for Crown prosecutors. However, the other allegations should have been pursued, and they were not.

I have set out some of the facts, but I have not had time to set out my analysis, and where we go from here. I only have time to say that today is the starting point of the discussion, and of the unpicking of the case. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Southend, West for giving us the opportunity to start off the process of discussion. I have more to say, and I shall seek to conclude the matter by finding some way of bringing it back to the Chamber—[Interruption.]

Order. I apologise to those observing the debate for its fragmented nature. The debate is now concluded, and the sitting suspended for a Division.

5 pm

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House

6.2 pm

On resuming

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes past Six o'clock.