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Criminal Justice System: Equal Treatment of Deaths and Injuries

Volume 813: debated on Thursday 24 June 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that the criminal justice system treats deaths and injuries caused by motorists equally to those not caused by motorists.

My Lords, where there is evidence of an intention to kill or cause serious injury, offences committed by motorists will be prosecuted in the same way as other homicides or assaults. However, in the context of driving it is often difficult to ascertain the driver’s state of mind or intentions. That is why the law contains additional road traffic offences that consider an objective test of the standard of driving, rather than the driver’s subjective intent.

In 2014, a man travelling at 80 to 88 miles per hour in his car drove straight at the traffic officer who tried to flag him down to stop him. The killer made no attempt to swerve or to slow and he threw PC Duncan into the air like a ragdoll, leaving him with fatal injuries. The starting point for murdering a police officer with a knife or an iron bar is 30 years; this driver got an eight and a half year sentence. Is that justice?

My Lords, first, I acknowledge the gravity of that incident and we should pay our respects to the police officer’s family, remembering the work that police officers do, day in and day out. However, one has to distinguish the road traffic offence from the consequences. In that case, if there were sufficient evidence to prosecute for murder or manslaughter, that prosecution should have been brought. I know that the CPS does bring those charges when there is evidence to support them and sufficient likelihood of a guilty verdict.

My Lords, can my noble friend say how you compare offences which are different in their formulation and different in the sentences available—including, for example, disqualification?

My Lords, as would be expected, my noble and learned friend is absolutely right. Homicide offences and the specific driving offences of causing death and injury are different. They are designed for different purposes and have different levels of culpability, but there is a complementary structure and, as I said, where there is evidence to charge for the homicide offences, that will be done in addition to the driving offences.

There appears to be a perception that drivers get off with lighter sentences, possibly because people can identify with driver error. It is the kind of attitude that says, “There, but for the grace of God, go many of us”. How will the Government ensure that there are suitable punishments for the most serious cases of dangerous driving, as we have heard the Minister say today, involving the sort of conduct that we would all find abhorrent?

My Lords, I agree that perhaps going slightly above the speed limit is something that, inadvertently, many of us might do for a short period, but no one is sympathetic to the behaviour of those who drive very dangerously, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and cause devastation to the families of the people they kill or injure. This Government, in the PCSC Bill, are looking to increase the sentencing powers for courts where people who have committed that sort of behaviour are convicted.

My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware of the tragic death of Ryan Saltern. He was killed by a driver who failed to stop and report the accident, yet upon conviction the driver received only a four-month jail sentence, suspended for a year. With this case in mind, does the noble Lord agree that issues such as this should be addressed in the PCSC Bill, either through the creation of a hit-and-run offence or by ensuring that, in cases where someone is killed or seriously injured by a motorist, magistrates are required to send the person convicted to the Crown Court for sentencing?

My Lords, I am aware of that case, and I send my condolences to the family of Ryan Saltern. Failure to stop offences are often referred to as hit and runs, but that is not really an accurate reflection of the offence. The offence is designed to deal with the behaviour relating to the failure to stop; it is not an alternative route to punish an offender for a more serious but not proven offence. As I said, where there is evidence that the driver caused harm, there are other offences they can be charged with, and the failure to stop will then be an aggravating feature in the sentencing for that offence.

One way of addressing the incidence and consequences of unacceptable driving is to change the culture among road users. Last year’s consultation on the interim review of the Highway Code focused specifically on improving safety for vulnerable users—particularly cyclists, pedestrians and horse riders—and asked respondents for their views on introducing a hierarchy of road users. If introduced, this would ensure that those road users who can do the greatest harm have the greatest responsibility to reduce the danger or threat they may pose to others. Do the Government support a hierarchy and the prioritisation of road users in this way? When will the Government publish their response to the consultation, which closed eight months ago?

My Lords, some of the points the noble Lord has raised are really for my colleagues in the Department for Transport, and I will pass those on. But he is absolutely right that culture is an important part of this debate; we can all think of examples around the world where there is a different culture in the way that road space is used. Of course, one has to remember that everybody who uses the road is subject to the Highway Code. That includes both the drivers of juggernauts and, if I may say so, cyclists, who sometimes appear to think that they are subject to the pavement code.

My Lords, I know the House will remember the cycling safety Bill in 1993, which I introduced in the other place as a 10-minute rule Bill—I see my noble friend nodding his head. This would have made a presumption of a charge of dangerous driving if a motorist had collided, through his or her fault, with a cyclist, and I still stand by that. But in this particular case, there must be a difference between accidental and intentional malign behaviour, and surely we should allow some leeway for the CPS and magistrates and judges to make their judgment on the case, rather than pass yet further laws.

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right when he says that the purpose of criminal law generally is to look not only at the consequences of the behaviour but, far more importantly, at the culpability of the offender. That is the same in the context of driving as well. Where the driver intends to kill or commit serious injury by driving deliberately at somebody, it is right that they should face homicide or similar charges. But, in other cases, the problem with driving offences is that a relatively small driving error can lead to catastrophic consequences.

My Lords, the Vienna convention on diplomatic immunity is to protect diplomats in doing their duty. It has been used to escape prosecution for road traffic offences—not only for one very sad death but also for injuries. Could the Minister communicate with his colleagues in the Foreign Office and ask them, first, to get agreement where possible from missions that they will not claim diplomatic immunity for road traffic offences, and, secondly, to seek an amendment to the Vienna convention?

My Lords, I have some experience of this; in a former life, I argued a few cases against some other Members of your Lordships’ House relating to the Vienna convention and the consequences of it. I fully understand the point that my noble friend makes, and I will pass it on to the appropriate department, as he suggests.

[Inaudible]—change of personality with some people behind the wheel; we have seen road rage lead to murder in some cases. Could the noble Lord say whether there has been an increase in motorists driving while using mobile phones, drinking or eating, and, of course, driving while drunk, drugged or disqualified—all of which are against the law and could result in accidents, sometimes fatal? Does he agree that the most effective penalty is to remove their wheels and, if they persist, for the court to deprive them of their liberty?

My Lords, I am afraid I do not have those precise figures to hand, but I will write to the noble Lord with them and place a copy in the Library. So far as bans are concerned, the noble Lord will be aware that, in the table of road traffic offences and penalties, there are discretionary bans towards the bottom end but obligatory bans towards the top end of the scale.

My noble friend may recall the very sad case of Kim Briggs, a pedestrian mowed down by a cyclist using an illegal bicycle. Will he ensure that the objective test to which he refers will extend to all those e-scooters, e-bikes and other cyclists who inadvertently mow down pedestrians, whether on a road or pavement, so that they face the full consequences of the law on an equal footing with other road traffic offences committed by motorists?

My Lords, my noble friend raises an important point. I made a comment about cyclists earlier, and I will not ask the House to indulge me by saying it again. As far as e-scooters are concerned, one does not hear them coming; when they come down pavements at fairly quick speeds, they can be extremely dangerous. However, this is really a matter for the Department for Transport. I will pass it on and ensure that my noble friend receives a written response to that part of her question.