The Magistrate's Blog (2005-2012)

This blog has migrated to www.magistratesblog.blogspot.co.uk This blog is anonymous, and Bystander's views are his and his alone. Where his views differ from the letter of the law, he will enforce the letter of the law because that is what he has sworn to do. If you think that you can identify a particular case from one of the posts you are wrong. Enough facts are changed to preserve the truth of the tale but to disguise its exact source.

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Location: Near London, United Kingdom

The blog is written by a retired JP, with over 30 years' experience on the Bench.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Death on the Roads

One of the most difficult things that a magistrate has to do is to deal with a case where someone has been killed on the road, and a driver faces the court as a result.

The worst offences, of causing death by dangerous driving, or of causing death by careless driving while under the influence of alcohol are straightforward - we would commit them to the Crown Court where they usually attract long prison sentences. The difficult cases are where someone has been killed as a result of careless driving. This offence can only be dealt with by magistrates, and is not imprisonable. Sometimes the tiniest error on the part of a driver can result in a death; this is fairly common where motorcycles are involved. We have always been trained to punish the offence and not the consequences, and when I was first trained we were given an example:-

You and I are driving identical cars side by side, at identical speeds, approaching traffic lights. Stationary in front of us are two more cars, identical to each other. We each hit the car in front at exactly 30mph. The driver of 'my' one gets out of the car uninjured. By horrible chance yours is dead. Should we receive different punishments? My view has always been 'no', as the carelessness is similar. Let us say that the penalty is assessed at £300 fine each, plus six penalty points (offence carries 3 to 9). Next Friday the local paper comes out with a photo of the dead man's mother in tears outside the court, under the screaming headline:- "THE PRICE OF MY SON'S LIFE : £300!" and a picture of Diana-style flowers fixed to the traffic lights.

It is vital that the Chairman prepares the court's judgement with enormous care, explaining clearly the reason for the sentence being what it is, and expressing sympathy with the bereaved. In a case that I saw the defence solicitor addressed about half of his mitigation to the victim's family. But that was not enough, and the victim's mother went off to the Daily Mail who gave it a full page.

The Government is currently reviewing Road Traffic law, and one of the proposals is to create a new imprisonable offence of causing death by careless driving. This runs a real risk of the courts dancing to the tabloids' tune, and imposing disproportionate sentences to please the mob. Accidents happen, and it is for a dispassionate and impartial tribunal to assess the proper penalty if one is appropriate. I fear that we are going to come under pressure to impose severe sentences. It will not, in my view, save a single life.