Causing serious injury by dangerous driving

New Clause 15 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill was debated by its Public Bill Committee on the 13th October 2011. The Bill now goes on to the Report stage in the House of Commons on the 24th October 2011.

 

 

New Clause 15

Causing serious injury by dangerous driving

‘(1) The Road Traffic Act 1988 is amended as follows.

(2) After section 1 insert—

“1A Causing serious injury by dangerous driving

(1) A person who causes serious injury to another person by driving a mechanically propelled vehicle dangerously on a road or other public place is guilty of an offence.

(2) In this section “serious injury” means—

(a) in England and Wales, physical harm which amounts to grievous bodily harm for the purposes of the Offences against the Person Act 1861, and

(b) in Scotland, severe physical injury.”

(3) In section 2A (meaning of dangerous driving) in subsections (1) and (2) after “sections 1” insert “, 1A”.

(4) Section 1A inserted by subsection (2) has effect only in relation to driving occurring after that subsection comes into force.

(5) In Part 1 of Schedule 2 to the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 (prosecution and punishment of offences under the Traffic Acts) in the appropriate place insert—

“RTA section 1A

Causing serious injury by dangerous driving.

(a) Summarily.

(a) 12 months or the statutory maximum or both.

Obligatory.

Obligatory.

3-11.”

(b) On indictment.

(b) 5 years or a fine or both.

(6) In the entry inserted by subsection (5), in relation to an offence committed before the commencement of section 154(1) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 “12 months” is to be read as “6 months (in England and Wales) or 12 months (in Scotland)”.

(7) Schedule [Causing serious injury by dangerous driving] (causing serious injury by dangerous driving) has effect.’.— (Mr Blunt.)

Brought up, and read the First time. 

3.15 pm

Mr Blunt:  I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

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The Chair:  With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Government new schedule 1—Causing serious injury by dangerous driving. 

Government amendments 406, 407 and 408.

Mr Blunt:  I hope that the new clause and its associated new schedule and amendments will be welcomed by the Committee, not least by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East, who has been among a number of hon. Members who for some time have been alerting Parliament to this issue. It certainly goes back as far as 2006 when my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) proposed similar amendments, and representations were made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield, now the Secretary of State for International Development, and the hon. Member for Bolton North East (Mr Crausby). What we are proposing today addresses the concerns that colleagues have raised with us.

The Government believe that it is vital to ensure that the criminal law is fully effective in addressing dangerous driving and its all too often appalling consequences. New clause 15 fills a long recognised gap by introducing a new offence of causing serious injury by dangerous driving. Causing death by dangerous driving is rightly considered a very serious crime, and that is reflected in the maximum penalty of 14 years imprisonment. Our law has always regarded cases where death results from criminality to be uniquely serious. That is why death by dangerous driving carries such a high maximum penalty.

For the vast majority of other dangerous driving cases, the maximum penalty of two years imprisonment provides the court with sufficient and proportionate powers to punish offenders. The Government do not agree with those who consider that the maximum penalty for dangerous driving should be raised at large. However, we are aware of the strong feelings about sentencing for dangerous driving cases that cause very severe injuries. We have considered the issue very carefully, not least in the debate on the ten-minute rule Bill that was recently introduced by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East. We have listened to the victims and their families and the judges and hon. Members who have firm views about sentencing for cases of dangerous driving with appalling consequences.

The issue is emotive. Campaigners have long suggested that the gap between the current maximum penalty of two years for dangerous driving and 14 years for death by dangerous driving is too wide. They believe that the current two-year maximum for dangerous driving does not adequately reflect or address the serious injuries that can result from such driving. A victim can receive very serious life-changing injuries, but the maximum penalty remains at two years. We have therefore decided to target directly the offences where there is a clear and obvious gap in the law. We believe the new offence will enable the courts to deal appropriately with people convicted in these more serious cases. It will enable them to sentence more severely at the most serious and damaging end of the spectrum of dangerous driving incidents.

Some people maintain that the courts should focus on the standard of the driving rather than the consequences. They say that whether death or serious injuries result from a piece of bad driving is a matter of chance, however serious the result. I appreciate that argument,

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but only to a degree. While it is certainly true that the standard of driving must be the most important factor in judging culpability, the Government believe it important to ensure that we strike a balance between the level of criminal fault on the part of dangerous drivers and the consequences of that criminal fault for the victim. We believe that the maximum sentence of five years for the new offence will give the courts the ability better to address that balance.

In short, I believe that it is right for the courts to have the ability to impose a stiffer custodial sentence to reflect the serious consequences of a driver’s actions, where it is appropriate to do so. As I say, we have listened to those who have suffered and those who have spoken on their behalf, and we are now able to help address their concerns through the creation of this new offence. Government new schedule 1 simply introduces a number of consequential amendments, which ensure that the provisions relating to the trial and consequences on conviction for the new offence will be similar to those relating to existing dangerous driving offences under the Road Traffic Act 1988.

Karl Turner:  May I start by saying what a pleasure it has been to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone? If my memory serves me, the last time I addressed hon. Members about dangerous driving was in a Westminster Hall debate which you chaired. I welcome Government new clause 15. I am bound to say that I welcome what the Minister has said, but it would probably be disingenuous of me to say that it reflects entirely what I had initially suggested. I thank the Minister for listening to what I said when I met him, his officials and the Justice Secretary.

The proposals put victims of dangerous driving at the heart of the justice system, which was the main principle of my argument and indeed of my ten-minute rule Bill. Many Members of Parliament have constituents who have been the victims of such horrendous offences. Since I became a Member of Parliament I have represented Katie Harper, who suffered serious injury at the hands of a dangerous driver. One of the most famous cases that I am aware of is the tragic case of Cerys Edwards, who was a toddler when she was involved in a road traffic incident. It was a tragic case indeed. In recent days, the York newspaper The Press reported the case of Graham Bell, who was the victim of dangerous driving. In that situation, the defendant James Ramsden drove his vehicle at about 100 mph down the A64, and hit the victim head-on. The victim did not suffer serious injury, but he was admitted to hospital and was kept in the high-dependency unit for some time.

If I am to criticise the Government, I need to highlight the concern that that case raises. There will be an issue where serious injury has not occurred—in some cases, injury might occur but not serious injury—and that might be a stumbling block. I am sure that many lawyers will be tasked with the legal arguments over whether serious injury has occurred. The issue for me is whether it is always easy to prove that grievous bodily harm has occurred in such situations. The case that I have mentioned is effectively grievous bodily harm—a section 20 offence for dangerous driving.

My argument, if you like, is that dangerous driving is really bad whether or not serious injury occurs. In my opinion, someone who drives a weapon at another person on the road without any regard for their own

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safety or the safety of others sometimes warrants a sentence of more than two years, whether injury has occurred or not. That is my criticism of the proposals. As I have said, however, the Government new clause puts the victims of dangerous driving—certainly where serious injury has occurred—at the heart of the justice system. I welcome that and thank the Minister for listening endlessly to me, not always in the privacy of the Justice Secretary’s office, but while I chased him down corridors and in the Lobby, as I have done on numerous occasions. I thank him very much indeed.

Anna Soubry:  It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East. I add my congratulations on his successful campaign and reiterate his generous comments about other campaigners, notably the victims’ families. I support much of what he says and suggest a way forward: instead of creating a new offence, the mischief we all seek to cure is better addressed with an extension of the existing sentencing powers from two to five years. There are two reasons why that should be done. I will, of course, support the Government, as I welcome the fact that we are taking this step forward in recognising that serious injury occurs and judges do not have sufficient powers to ensure that the punishment fits the crime.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the definition of serious harm. We are all conscious of the need to consider the cost. I fear that we will increase the cost of many prosecutions, as has been identified, while lawyers disagree, argue and seek more medical advice and so on, to ensure that they have the evidence to support a definition of serious harm, as opposed to very serious harm, which is more a definition of sections 20 and 18.

There are many instances of people driving outrageously badly, when some injury may or may not have occurred. Nevertheless, the current two-year maximum sentence is not sufficient. I prosecuted a case of a driver, who, during the prolonged course of a police chase, which I believe started in Leicestershire and ended in Nottinghamshire, actually changed seats with the passenger at high speed of up to 100 miles per hour. It was a miracle that the child being carried in the rear of the car was not involved in an accident and injured, never mind anybody else in other cars. There are many instances of such appalling driving, where it is a miracle that nobody was injured. We can all think of examples where red lights were jumped, corners taken at great speed and so on. My fear is that we will not cure those mischiefs by simply recognising, quite properly, that the existing powers of sentence do not cover those examples where serious injury has taken place.

I put that forward because there are other instances of people driving appallingly over a long period that have ended in a collision. Those might involve chasing police vehicles, or other completely innocent drivers. The resulting collision could cause extensive damage to vehicles but mercifully, the injury might be whiplash and not serious. However, when all those factors are put together, clearly two years is not sufficient.

The other factor that we also forget is that the current two-year maximum sentence ties a judge’s hands when considering a case of very bad driving, since they cannot reflect that there may be other offences. The person in question might never have taken a driving test in 20 years, and it could be their second or third offence. None of

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those aggravating features can be properly reflected in the existing legislation. Therefore, I urge the Government to consider that the better way is to change the sentencing powers from two to five years, so that all such offences can be properly sentenced by judges. I am a great believer in giving our judges powers and discretions to ensure that the punishment fits the crime.

Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con):  I rise not only to support the Government’s position but the work done by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East, with whom I have discussed this matter on many occasions. The thrust of his argument, which we have now heard and has been elucidated by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe, is an important one that we must not forget.

3.30 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House. 

3.45 pm

On resuming— 

[Jim Sheridan in the Chair]

Mr Buckland:  I should have said that it is a pleasure to welcome you back to the Chair, Mr Sheridan, and to have served under your chairmanship in this Public Bill Committee, of which this is the last sitting, so my thanks to you.

I was echoing some of the comments made by hon. Members about the problems faced by the courts when encountering the two-year maximum sentence for the offence of dangerous driving. Those problems are particularly aggravated when a defendant with multiple previous convictions for like offences comes before the courts, having built up over a number of years a very poor record of bad driving, aggravated by being disqualified. On disqualified driving, the courts can impose short consecutive sentences on top of dangerous driving, but they are of course limited by the maximum sentence available for disqualified driving of six months. With that addition, one can in effect impose a sentence in excess of two years, but there is still a significant ceiling that causes a problem for judges regarding the discretion available in sentencing repeat offenders for serious offences of dangerous driving. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe was right to remind the Government of that problem and to urge reconsideration of the issue by allowing a maximum sentence to be raised at some future point.

The proposal in new clause 15 and new schedule 1 allows the courts to reflect one of the serious consequences of dangerous driving: serious injury where that occurs. The Minister was right to say that one of the factors paramount in the minds of the legislation’s authors was the course of driving itself, and that there was for a long period a school of thought that the consequences were of secondary importance. We have moved away from that approach. I have noticed in the past 15 or 20 years a move by the Court of Appeal away from just focusing on the driving, and an increasing emphasis on the consequences. That is why I welcome this provision—because it deals with consequences.

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English criminal law has traditionally focused on consequences. The law of offences against the person does not specify the type of assault that may be inflicted; it deals with the consequences, namely grievous bodily harm or actual bodily harm. Here, we are in a more modern way defining grievous bodily harm as serious injury. I welcome that on two grounds. The first is the welcome acknowledgement that the consequences of dangerous driving—or driving that falls far below the standard of a reasonable and competent driver, which is the definition of dangerous driving—should be properly reflected in the law and in sentencing powers.

The second ground is the introduction of the modern phrase “serious injury” to allow the Government to give serious consideration to ongoing work by the Law Commission, which is in the process of reviewing the law of offences against the person and which will produce—in a year or so or perhaps slightly longer—a report on modernising the law of offences against the person. I am pretty sure that that review can deal with the archaic phrases “grievous bodily harm” and “actual bodily harm”, and the difficulties occasioned by interpreting the meaning of “inflicting” in section 20, as opposed to “causing” in section 18. Perhaps unintentionally, the Government have opened the door to, and assisted the work of, the Law Commission, which I hope will yield fruit in modernising the law of violence against the person. I warmly welcome the new clause for those reasons.

Helen Goodman:  I want to put on record Her Majesty’s Opposition’s support for the new clause, which is sensible. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East on his successful campaign. He has achieved something that Members on the Opposition Front Bench have failed to do: he has persuaded the Government to make a change to the Bill, which indicates that he has a great career ahead of him. He is a very effective Member of the House.

Mr Blunt:  The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East deserves credit for the way in which he has run his campaign in this Parliament, but other hon. Members deserve credit, too. This was the position of the then Opposition in 2006, so the measure has some history. The hon. Gentleman referred not only to the case of his constituent, Katie Harper, but to that of Cerys Edwards. A number of colleagues, including the hon. Member for Bolton North East and my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield, have been associated with the cause, so it concerns Members from both sides of the House. I welcome the support that has come from all quarters for the measure.

To respond to a couple of minor points, serious injury is defined in the new clause as

“physical harm which amounts to grievous bodily harm for the purposes of the Offences against the Person Act 1861”.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon for explaining how that definition relates to the work being done by Law Commission. He and my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe invited us to consider raising the overall maximum penalty to five years. We have done so, but there is no evidence to suggest that the maximum penalty is too low in the vast majority of dangerous driving cases. In addition, an increase in the overall maximum would almost certainly

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lead to an upward drift in all dangerous driving cases, which would carry significant cost implications. It would also unbalance the sentencing relativities across the board.

The Government are much more convinced by the argument that we should focus on consequences. I was therefore convinced by that part of the argument made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon. That is the direction that the law and the Court of Appeal have taken, and we endorse it, which is why the new clause delivers a more targeted approach to addressing the consequences of bad driving.

Question put and agreed to. 

New clause 15 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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