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Dangerous Driving: Unduly Lenient Sentence Scheme

Volume 740: debated on Tuesday 7 November 2023

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Fay Jones.)

On the evening of 15 January this year, Paul Carter, his wife Lisa, and Jade Mace—Lisa’s daughter from her first marriage—were killed when Aurelijus Cielevicius crashed his car into theirs. Three innocent lives were ended. I stand here this evening to speak on behalf of my constituent Summer Mace, who lost her mum, sister and stepfather on that awful evening, and her family and friends who provided 28 victim personal statements to the court.

I have met Summer and her father, and heard just a little bit about the terrible impact that this crime has had on them and their wider family and friends. The facts of the case are shocking. The offender’s speed was so excessive that when he passed a police officer in a marked police vehicle in a layby, the officer was unable to note the registration number. Prior to the crash, he went through two red lights, almost causing another collision, and crossed solid white no-overtaking lines on multiple occasions. Other motorists on the road that night said that he was travelling at speeds of 100 mph and struggling to stay in control of the vehicle, including when the crash happened, where he was on the wrong side of the road and unable to get back to the left-hand lane. All of that was while he was on a cocktail of drugs, including being 15 times over the limit after taking crystal meth, and with high levels of cannabis in his system.

The family told me that CCTV shows Cielevicius driving through red lights with blue lights visible in the background, although the judge did not accept that he knew he was being followed by the police at the time of the crash. The collision investigator estimates that when the driver crashed into the other vehicle head-on, killing Paul, Lisa, and Jade, he was travelling at 91 mph. He was only slightly injured. On 20 June, Cielevicius was convicted of three counts of causing death by dangerous driving. It is unacceptable that, after a guilty plea was taken into account, this offender was sentenced to only 10 and a half years for killing three people.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that this person was under the influence of drugs. My question is probably one for the Minister, through the hon. Gentleman. Although the Government place great emphasis on tackling those who are over the limit for alcohol, perhaps they do not place the same emphasis on drugs. In my constituency, the availability of drugs seems to be growing by the day. With that in mind, does the hon. Gentleman believe that the Government and the police need to place greater emphasis on testing and catching drivers who are under the influence of drugs, thereby reducing accidents?

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We are all familiar with the annual Christmas drink-driving campaigns and other campaigns throughout the year, and I think Norfolk Constabulary has also done some drug-testing campaigns. I encourage other police forces to do the same, because it is not just about alcohol; it is also about drugs, as in this case.

The primary purpose of tonight’s debate is to highlight the serious issues raised by this case with sentencing and the unduly lenient sentence scheme, as well as to propose some changes to the criminal justice system. In the Government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, Parliament legislated to increase the maximum sentence for this offence from 14 years to life imprisonment. We did that to reflect the devastation that such crimes inflict. As Summer wrote in a petition calling for change in our criminal justice system:

“My family were given a life sentence the day that man killed my loved ones. A life sentence that I will never be released from. On 15th January, he killed our future lives, thoughts and hopes—as we have none without them.”

Summer and her family cannot understand why the life sentence they have been dealt has not been imposed on this offender. The petition that Summer organised has been signed by over 13,000 people, and the family are working alongside other families and charities such as RoadPeace, with its “Fix our Broken Justice System” campaign, to try to make a difference.

I thank the hon. Member for securing this important debate. In my constituency of Somerton and Frome, we were recently shocked by the tragic deaths of two young sisters, Liberty and Madison, who were killed as they drove on the A361 bypass near Frome. They were killed because speed limits were ignored, on a road that has seen many traffic accidents in recent years. Does he agree that our road traffic laws are failing, and that the victims of criminal driving and their families need confidence that our legal system will deliver justice?

We increased the maximum sentence for this crime to life imprisonment precisely to try to address those concerns. I now want to come to whether the system is actually working, in the sense that courts are imposing the sentences that this Parliament has legislated for.

The judge classed this as a level 1 case—the most serious—owing to a prolonged, persistent and deliberate course of very bad driving. In her sentencing remarks, she highlighted the following aggravating factors: three people were killed; there was greatly excessive speed; the driver knew he was deprived of sufficient sleep; he had consumed drugs above the legal limit—there was a cocktail of drugs in his system; he had previous convictions for motoring offences—driving while disqualified, driving with excess alcohol and two counts of driving with no insurance; and he was on police bail for a driving offence at the time and in breach of curfew conditions. There were six aggravating factors, yet the judge went on to state that a sentence after a trial would have been 14 years, when the maximum sentence legislated for by this Parliament is life imprisonment.

The simple question that many people have is: why? A particular concern in this case is the timeliness of sentencing guidelines. From June 2022, the maximum penalty for causing death by dangerous driving was increased to life imprisonment, as I have mentioned, yet it was not until 1 July 2023 that new sentencing guidelines took effect. How and why can there be such a gap? As it happens, new guidelines were published on 15 June 2023, before the judge passed her sentence, but they were not in effect. They increased the starting point for a level 1 offence from eight years in custody to 12 years, with a range of eight to 18 years.

Furthermore, the Solicitor General, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) personally argued, in the Luis Balcazar Soto case in the Court of Appeal in 2022, that pending the new sentencing guidelines, judges should increase sentences imposed for the most serious such offences to reflect the increase in the maximum sentence legislated for by this House. Having read the judgment carefully and the starting point selected, I do not consider that that is what happened in this case, when three people were killed.

My constituents also questioned the approach to concurrent sentences. The totality guidelines state that where more than one death is caused and they are charged in separate counts, as happened in this case, sentences reflecting the overall criminality would be appropriate, and to ensure that sentences are “just and proportionate”. Again, it is difficult to accept that that happened in this case, where a single concurrent sentence was given.

The sentence was referred to the Attorney General on behalf of the family. However, my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor General, acting on her behalf, declined to refer the matter to the Court of Appeal under the unduly lenient sentence scheme. In the response to the family, he stated that the judge characterised the offence accurately and identified the correct starting point. The question the family have is this: what further aggravating factors would justify a higher sentence and a referral?

A particular source of anger, and the reason the family lack confidence in the review, is that the letter explaining why the sentence would not be referred talks about the judge as a he, when in fact the judge was a she. It is perhaps not surprising that, as a result, my constituents, who suffered this very traumatic experience, are concerned that their case was not looked at properly. Can my hon. and learned Friend assure my constituents that it was carefully considered, and tell them whether experienced King’s Counsel provided advice on the case, having reviewed the judgment? My constituents have a specific request for my hon. and learned Friend. Will he agree to meet me and the family to explain those reasons directly to them in more detail?

Sadly, this case is not unique and RoadPeace has highlighted the cases of four families, including Summer’s, and the fact that no one has yet received a life sentence for this crime. As well as the contributions this evening, a number of other hon. and right hon. Members approached me in the House today, once it was known that this debate was taking place, to highlight similar cases in their constituencies where inadequate sentences were imposed.

Nothing will bring back Lisa Carter, Paul Carter or Jade Mace, but their families are committed to helping make changes to prevent other families from experiencing the nightmare that they have. They have identified four principal areas where action is needed to put the rights of victims and their bereaved families ahead of offenders.

First, the family want a thorough review of all the evidence related to this case, as, as I have explained, they do not consider it was properly reviewed. To that end, I hope my hon. and learned Friend will agree to meet the family to explain in greater detail how the case was considered and how the unduly lenient sentence test is applied.

Secondly, the family call for longer sentences. Parliament legislated for a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for the most serious cases. Given that, it is essential that the appropriateness of the sentencing guidelines for this offence are reviewed. How can it be right that someone who kills three people in such terrible circumstances could be out of prison in just seven and a half years? That is two and a half years each for the lives of Lisa, Paul and Jade. The guidelines need to be revised in line with Parliament’s intent to ensure that longer sentences are imposed. If the unduly lenient scheme threshold is set too cautiously, it should also be looked at to help inspire public confidence.

Thirdly, the bail system should be improved. As I mentioned, at the time of the crash, the offender was on bail for a driving offence and subject to a curfew, but tagging is not available for police bail, so when he broke the curfew, no one knew. If he had been tagged, it is possible that this appalling crime may have been prevented. One of the changes my constituents and all those who signed the petition want to see is curfews controlled—for example, with a tag—and stricter sanctions for failure to comply with bail conditions. This is a simple, common-sense reform to make our bail system more robust, and I hope the Government will take it forward.

Fourthly, to ordinary people it is offensive that multiple lives can be taken but concurrent rather than consecutive sentences imposed. Again, consideration should be given for the totality sentencing guidelines to be reviewed for offenders convicted of multiple deaths simultaneously, so that there is a shift towards imposing consecutive sentences.

Finally, thousands of people have signed another petition supporting a lifetime driving ban for people who are convicted of causing death by dangerous driving. In this case, a ban for a period of eight years was considered appropriate, extended to 15 years to take account of the time that the offender will be in prison. The courts have the powers to impose lifetime bans, and RoadPeace is campaigning for them to be applied. The Government should consider whether it should become a mandatory element in some cases, because driving is a privilege and not a right.

I recognise that a number of the issues I have raised fall to other Ministers and other Departments, and I seek the assistance of my hon. and learned Friend in ensuring that the points I have made are followed up after the debate, in writing and also through meetings. There is an opportunity—through the criminal justice and sentencing Bills announced in the King’s Speech, and through the power of the Lord Chancellor to request reviews of sentencing guidelines—to ensure that tougher sentences are imposed and served. That is what our constituents want, and what they expect.

For this family the nightmare will not end, but by making changes we can try to prevent others from suffering it. This debate is part of the process of putting forward those changes.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (James Wild) for securing this important debate. Dangerous driving, especially when it results in death or injury, is a most serious offence, which is rightly condemned by all in this House. I know how seriously my hon. Friend takes the issue, and I am grateful to him for his engagement in this matter. I thank him particularly for raising the case of his constituents Paul and Lisa Carter and Lisa’s daughter, Jade Mace. He set out his case very clearly, with passion and with compassion. I offer my sincere condolences and pay tribute to what is clearly a close-knit and loving family, and particularly to Summer, who lost her mother, sister and stepfather in this incident. Their pain and suffering are unimaginable. As the learned judge rightly said at the sentencing hearing:

“nothing I say [nor] any sentence I pass can make up for the loss of three lives or assuage the grief of their loved ones.”

I will turn to my hon. Friend’s specific points in a moment, but let me start by setting out some general principles of the scheme to which he rightly referred, the unduly lenient sentence scheme. In exercising my function of reviewing sentences under the ULS scheme, I act quasi-judicially. My role, and that of the Attorney General, is to act as a guardian of the public interest. I share my hon. Friend’s desire to ensure that those responsible for terrible crimes are properly punished, and it must be said that in the vast majority of cases, sentencing judges get it right. They deal with a range of cases that vary in complexity and severity, and I take this opportunity to commend them for their work.

Let me put that into context. Of more than 91,000 cases dealt with in the Crown court in 2022, more than 1,100 were referred to the Attorney General’s Office, of which 819 were eligible for the ULS scheme. Of those, 139 were referred to the Court of Appeal, which granted leave to refer in 77% of them. Those statistics have been published on the Attorney General’s website.

The ULS scheme promotes justice, fairness and consistency. It allows sentences which are unduly lenient to be increased, and it is there to correct an error when the judge gets it wrong. It is important to note, however, that it does not apply to sentences that are simply lenient. As the Court of Appeal has said repeatedly,

“sentencing is an art rather than a science…leniency is not in itself a vice. That mercy should season justice is a proposition as soundly based in law as it is in literature.”

The test of undue leniency is a high one. Parliament rightly intended that the Court of Appeal would grant permission to refer a sentence only in exceptional circumstances: for example, if the judge has passed a sentence that falls outside the range of sentences which a judge could properly consider appropriate, or if there has been some gross error in law or principle.

I turn now to the specific offence of causing death by dangerous driving. As my hon. Friend said, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 came into force on 28 June that year, and I know he welcomed it. When it did, there were two significant changes to the law. The first was the increase in the maximum penalty from 14 years to life imprisonment and, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) noted, this is not just for those under the influence of drink; it also for those under the influence of drugs. I am grateful to him for making that point. The second change relates to the minimum disqualification periods. The Government changed the law to increase both the maximum period of imprisonment and the minimum driver disqualification period for those who commit the most serious road traffic offences, ensuring that they are kept off our roads for a longer period.

My hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk mentioned the sentencing guidelines, and I shall turn specifically to that now. He is right to say that the revised sentencing guidelines came into force on 1 July 2023. Between 28 June 2022 and 1 July 2023, the courts were obliged to look to the old guidelines, but as a result of the Court of Appeal case in which I appeared in the Court of Appeal, the court provided judges with guidance on how to sentence those cases in the in-between period. Judges were encouraged to apply an uplift to the provisional sentence identified, to reflect the increase in the maximum penalty. I emphasise that that happened in this case and that the learned judge specifically referred to the Court of Appeal case of Waite and Balcazar Soto. I pay tribute to the work of the independent Sentencing Council for its development of the guidelines. I understand my hon. Friend’s point about timing. He is right that this has taken a long time, but it is inevitable that it will take time for guidelines to be produced following an appropriate consultation, as happened here. In the meantime, the Court of Appeal can give guidance, as also happened here.

On totality, my hon. Friend mentioned concurrent sentences. Judges must consider the totality of offending when sentencing for more than one offence. The totality guidelines have also been revised, and the revised guidelines came into force on 1 July 2023. The overriding principle of totality is that the overall sentence should reflect all the offending behaviour and that it should be just and proportionate. In relation to the sentence for the offence of causing death by dangerous driving, the starting points and category ranges relate to a single offence resulting in a single death. Where more than one person is killed, that will of course aggravate the seriousness of the offence because of the increase in harm. However, where more than one death is caused and they are charged on separate counts, concurrent sentences reflecting the overall criminality are appropriate where the offending or the harm arises out of a single incident, but there will be an increase in the sentence to reflect the increased harm. I note the points that my hon. Friend has made.

Let me turn to my hon. Friend’s other points on life sentences. Causing death by dangerous driving is a specified offence for the purposes of sentencing. This means that a judge can impose a discretionary life sentence, or an extended sentence if they determine that the offender is what is known as a dangerous offender. A dangerous offender is someone who poses a significant risk of causing serious harm to members of the public. An extended sentence consists of a custodial term that reflects the seriousness of the offending, followed by an extended licence period, which is determined on the basis of what the court considers necessary for the purpose of protecting members of the public. This means that, unlike under a determinate sentence, the offender is not automatically released at the halfway or two-thirds point of the sentence. It means that they can apply for parole after they have served two thirds of their sentence, and will be released only if the Parole Board determines that they are no longer a danger to the public. They must of course be released at the end of the custodial period, but they will remain on licence until the expiry of the extended period. The learned judge in this case explained that very process in her sentencing remarks.

I offer my sincere apologies to the family for the fact that my letter to them referred to the judge incorrectly. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that point. It was an error, it was my error, and I apologise. However, the case was carefully considered. They all are, but perhaps especially those involving such tragic consequences, and especially so given that my hon. Friend specifically brought this case to my attention.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate. The ULS scheme is not a mystery, and neither should it be, but it is not often that we have the opportunity to debate the scheme in detail, as we have this evening. I am grateful to him for providing that opportunity. He specifically requested that I meet him and the family and, yes, of course I will.

I close by commending the family once more for their bravery in raising this case and for their determination to ensure that other families do not suffer as they have.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.