Road Traffic Accidents (Compensation and Sentencing)

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Miss Begg. I am also pleased to have secured this important debate on road traffic accident compensation and sentencing. I accept that the title is broad, but I hope to raise several different but interconnected issues on the subject. Specifically, I would like to take the opportunity to discuss two constituency cases, those of Mr. Jim Alston and Mrs. Sandra Hudson, who are both watching the debate today. As is often the case, it is those cases that involve real people and their lives which point to the defects in our man-made and too often process-driven justice system. I believe that both these cases raise serious issues about the general state of sentencing and Government policy.

I will begin with the case of Mr. Robert Hudson, and I will try to deal only with the facts as they are known. Mr. Hudson died of brain injuries after being hit by an unlicensed driver, Mandy Lewis, in December 2008. He was crossing the road close to his home, I believe to post a letter. His wife, Sandra, was nearby. Lewis was a 28-year-old single mother of two, who had come to Reading to meet a man at a local hotel after arranging it via the internet. She drove all the way from Essex to Reading for that night, and was on her way home at approximately 11 am the following morning after stopping at a petrol station. Lewis held only a provisional licence, and was therefore driving without proper insurance. She sped off knowing that she had hit Mr. Hudson, leaving him fatally injured. The judge in the case, Stephen John, said that Lewis had evaded her responsibility and prolonged the agony of the Hudson family.

Mandy Lewis was eventually identified by the police via CCTV footage from the petrol station. However, despite her obvious guilt, she steadfastly refused to answer police questions. In defence of her actions, her counsel highlighted the recent death of her mother from cancer. The judge said:

“This was an accident; no-one suggests that you intended it to occur, nor that your driving was poor, but once it happened you drove off and spent months trying to get away with it. You knew the pain of the recent loss of your mother but gave no thought to the pain your actions caused to another family.”

What so shocked Sandra Hudson is what happened with the sentencing. Mrs. Hudson attended the court with her family only to discover that, after initially protesting her innocence, Lewis pleaded guilty. Mandy Lewis’s original sentence of 36 weeks’ imprisonment was immediately reduced by a third to just 24 weeks after she changed her plea to guilty. Along with many others in her situation, Mrs. Hudson has had to face the sad reality of the sentencing guidelines, particularly for the new offence of causing death while unlicensed, disqualified or uninsured. The new offence differs from the usual bad or dangerous driving offences in that the culpability arises only from the offender driving a vehicle on a road when, by law, they are not allowed to do so. Because the offence does not require proof of any fault in the standard of driving, the emphasis is on the decision to drive taken by the offender, rather than on the standard of driving. The offence carries a lower maximum penalty of two years’ imprisonment. Most people would find it astonishing to hear that somebody without a licence and proper insurance cannot be judged by a court on how safely they were driving following a hit-and-run accident.

I fully appreciate that the courts have complete judicial discretion to pass the sentence that they believe is appropriate in individual cases, after taking into consideration all the circumstances of the offence and the offender. However, not only was the defendant driving illegally in the first place, it is my understanding that leaving the scene of an accident is an additional factor that should add to the sentencing tariff. When both those factors are combined, is 24 weeks in custody a fair punishment for Lewis’s actions when taking Robert Hudson’s life? Has justice really been served by passing such an extraordinarily low sentence? Lewis even appealed against the 24-week sentence, but thankfully I understand that that appeal was quashed. Mrs. Hudson is left with strong feelings that Mandy Lewis will not serve even those 24 weeks of her sentence. Perhaps the Minister will confirm, either today or later in writing, whether the short 24-week sentence will be served in full.

When Mrs. Hudson inquired about the sentence discount given to Lewis because she entered that guilty plea, the Ministry of Justice informed her:

“The justification for such ‘sentence discounts’ is that early guilty pleas are beneficial to victims and other witnesses, who no longer need to worry about having to go to court to give evidence.”

I think it is safe to argue that the sentence discount in this case was by no means beneficial to the family of Robert Hudson, and it is perhaps disrespectful to imply otherwise. If anything, the statement from the Ministry of Justice merely highlights the impersonal, sausage-machine nature of the justice system, which takes little or no account of individual circumstances.

The current sentencing policy is certainly not proving a deterrent for hit-and-run drivers. In Reading, East we have seen hit-and-run offences nearly double since 1999, and in Berkshire they have risen by almost a third over the past 10 years. At the very least, does not that suggest that sentencing is perhaps overly lenient?

Another issue in this case was the delay in the release of Robert Hudson’s body; a delay that meant that his widow could not be allowed to make important funeral arrangements. I understand that the defence has the right to ask for a second post-mortem examination when the police are investigating a fatality case, and I also understand that that is established practice in the courts. However, surely we must be more sensitive to the impact that that has on the victim’s family. The unrepentant Ms Lewis originally left Mrs. Hudson’s husband to die by the roadside; one can imagine Mrs. Hudson’s heartbreak and despair when Lewis added further to the delay to his burial. Under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, the Secretary of State has powers to make new regulations to govern this area. I sincerely hope that he will use those powers to stop this sort of abuse, which adds considerably to the grief of the family.

I would now like to turn to the case of Bobby Alston. Bobby was tragically killed, aged just 25, in June 2008 when his motorbike smashed into the side of a car driven by a foreign national, Bozhidar Iliev. After initially claiming that his car had suffered a burst tyre, Iliev was found guilty of causing death by dangerous driving in July 2009 and sentenced to a mere 18 months in prison with a three-year driving ban.

Bobby’s father, Jim Alston, is obviously extremely upset by the leniency of that sentence. After the sentencing at Reading Crown court in September 2009, he told the press:

“Sentencing for crimes like this is farcical, very unfair and not at all just. The sentence is an insult to Bobby.”

I fear that few would disagree with those sentiments.

As the Minister probably knows, Jim Alston is a card-carrying member of the Labour party, and feels that the Government have let him and his family down. It is his view, as told to me, that Government policy on sentencing is out of step with the Labour party’s own commitment to be

“tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.”

As the Minister may know, Mr. Alston has been in correspondence with both the Prime Minister and the Justice Secretary on this matter.

We all know that there is complexity in sentencing. The offence of causing death by dangerous driving causes difficulty for the sentencers, let alone anyone else. On one hand, an offence involving a person’s death is always serious and understandably leads to calls for severe sentences. On the other hand, an offender convicted of that offence most likely did not deliberately cause death or serious injury. In some cases, the driver may have had a momentary lapse in judgment, but in the worst type of case, he or she may be very much to blame, having driven with complete disregard for the safety of others.

In the case of Iliev, he was doing a U-turn on a dangerous bend. He pleaded not guilty and had to be found guilty at Reading Crown court. Although Jim Alston has had to accept that the judge was simply following the guidelines issued by the Sentencing Guidelines Council, I should be grateful if the Minister took this opportunity to explain, in a more general context, whether she thinks it acceptable to give such low sentences when accidents result in loss of life. One has only to open a newspaper to see other families devastated by the loss of a loved one killed on the roads.

Let me also mention the case of Ryan Batt, who was killed by Timon Douglin while walking on a pavement in Reading’s Shinfield road. The killer got a sentence of three years and three months that even the judge said was inadequate. Douglin denied knowing that he had hit Ryan Batt, claiming that he had got out of the car and picked up a damaged bumper without realising that Mr. Batt was dying in the garden of 156 Shinfield road. Of course that was an absolutely absurd defence and was dismissed by the judge at Reading Crown court, who said that there was no way that Douglin would not have known that he had hit his victim. The evidence proved that Mr. Batt’s head hit the windscreen in front of the driver of the car before he was propelled into the garden.

The judge made it clear that although the sentence was inadequate, he had to follow guidelines when sentencing. That suggests that even judges feel that the Government sentencing guidelines are inadequate. In this case, the sentence was reviewed by the Attorney-General, as I understand it, due to popular outrage, but it was still left unchanged.

In preparing for the debate, I have spent time examining the sentencing guidelines, and they are a quagmire. At the most basic level, they assess how valuable a life is against assessment criteria with aggravating and mitigating factors. It is cold, impersonal and extremely complex. I can understand why judges feel exasperated by the complexity, but it is utterly unfathomable to the ordinary man and woman. On no level can the sentences handed out to Iliev and Mandy Lewis be considered fair, appropriate or just.

I also find it absurd that causing death while unlicensed carries a lesser penalty, with the emphasis on the decision to drive by the offender rather than the standard of driving. Surely one is unlicensed for a reason. Why is it that because such incidents happened on the road, such reckless individuals do not pay the full price for their misdemeanours and crimes? It is not hard to understand why in such cases families feel so blatantly wronged by the criminal justice system in this country.

Due to my involvement in these cases, it is my understanding that following a number of extremely serious cases put before the MOJ over the past year, it has announced its intention to extend the minimum sentence for dangerous driving to five years when there is the appropriate legislative opportunity. I sincerely hope, for the sake of all families that are living through such tragic circumstances, that stiffer sentences come sooner rather than later, although with the sentencing discounts available to the guilty, it is hard to see what the overall impact will eventually be.

Continuing my comments about the case of Bobby Alston, I shall now say a few words about the compensation that families are eligible to receive following the death of a loved one. Jim Alston works as a private hire driver in west Berkshire and part time for a security company. Time is money in those occupations-if people are not on the road, they cannot gain an income. With the unexpected tragedy of his son’s death and still grieving, Mr. Alston set about arranging a funeral and memorial service and attending the court proceedings. That is an expensive business, and insurance goes only part of the way towards covering the costs. The word “compensation” in this case should mean covering costs. Jim Alston spent more than £9,000 and received insurance for just under £5,000. That does not even begin to count his lost income from his employment.

I believe that Iliev should have had to cover any difference in costs, yet road traffic accidents-RTAs, as they are called-are specifically excluded from the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000, which gives a judge the authority to order that compensation, including funeral expenses, be paid by a convicted criminal. Section 130 states that a court may make an order requiring the person convicted of an offence to

“make payments for funeral expenses or bereavement in respect of a death resulting from any such offence”-

this is the key part-

“other than a death due to an accident arising out of the presence of a motor vehicle on a road”.

Because the criminal courts cannot help Mr. Alston, his option would be to fight a civil case, but he has been informed that that costs about £2,000 and it would hardly be worth it to chase £4,000. I think that the Minister should take the opportunity to review this system. A simple amendment to the Act could allow
RTAs to be included in criminals covering the costs of bereaved families-for example, where insurance does not. If the Minister is not prepared to commit to that today, we need to understand why. I hope that the Government are on the side of the families affected, rather than the criminals.

The Government often point families affected by RTAs in the direction of the charity Brake. I place on the record my admiration and support for the important work that that road safety charity does, but I worry that the Government are using a charity to obscure their wider obligations to bereaved families.

The complexity of the issues involved means in this case that Mr. Alston has yet to receive the closure that he and his family deserve. After many months of correspondence on the matter and a great deal of frustration on Mr Alston’s part, the Secretary of State has finally agreed to meet Mr Alston and me tomorrow. I had hoped to be able to report on the outcome of that meeting during today’s debate. However, we must be patient and wait with anticipation for what he has to say at tomorrow’s meeting. Needless to say, I shall be supporting Jim Alston and repeating what I have said today, but I will listen with interest to what the Secretary of State has to say about increasing the sentencing tariff and amending the legislation on compensation. In the meantime, I should be grateful if the Minister responded to the particular points that I have raised during the debate today.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Claire Ward): First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) on securing the debate. I realise that it is a very important debate for his constituents. Given the presence of his constituents today, I should like to extend my sincere sympathy to the Hudson family and to the Alston family for their loss. Any death or serious injury that occurs as a result of a road traffic accident is a tragedy, and the impact on the families of victims is immeasurable. The hon. Gentleman tried hard to give some examples of the impact on his constituents and their families.

Sadly, sentencing cannot bring anyone back. However, this is also about getting justice for the families and a sense of closure. Sentencing for road traffic offences where a fatal accident occurs is a very difficult exercise, because with road traffic accidents-the hon. Gentleman referred to this-there can be a huge difference between the harm done and the level of blameworthiness of the driver. I hope that it will assist if I set out what the law says about sentencing in such cases and describe what has been done through the statutory framework. I will also refer to the compensation issues that the hon. Gentleman raised.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the specific circumstances in his constituents’ cases, but I hope that he and his constituents will understand that I cannot comment on individual sentencing decisions, because the courts are independent of the Government. It would not be appropriate, on the basis of the information that the hon. Gentleman has presented, for me to comment specifically on the details of those cases.

Parliament’s role is to ensure that there is an appropriate framework of offences and penalties. In recent years, we have enacted a number of measures designed to deal more effectively with those whose driving puts others at serious risk. As the hon. Gentleman said, we have introduced the new offences of causing death by careless driving and causing death while driving unlicensed or uninsured. Those offences carry maximum penalties of five years’ and two years’ imprisonment respectively. We have also increased the maximum penalty for serious driving offences, including causing death by dangerous driving and causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs, from 10 to 14 years’ imprisonment.

However, there is always more to do. Dangerous driving is still too prevalent, and we should not underestimate the devastating effect that bad driving can have on people’s lives. We have listened to those who have campaigned for an increase in the maximum penalty for dangerous driving. When I first took up my post, I met the family of Cerys Edwards, a young child who had received very serious, nearly fatal injuries as a result of the actions of a dangerous driver. The family had been campaigning hard for a change in the legislation on dangerous driving. As a result of listening to those representations, we have announced that we intend to increase the maximum penalty for dangerous driving from two years’ to five years’ imprisonment. That will, of course, require primary legislation, and we will look to include an appropriate provision in a suitable Bill at the earliest possible opportunity in the parliamentary timetable.

Mr. Rob Wilson: One thing that concerns my constituents is that when the Minister talks about a maximum sentence, it does not mean much, because someone pleading guilty automatically gets a third of the sentence off. Will the Minister make it clear to my constituents what a minimum sentence means?

Claire Ward: In many cases, these are minimum sentences rather than maximum sentences. The minimum sentence essentially becomes a starting point for the court to consider. As the hon. Gentleman said, the court must then look at the aggravating circumstances and any mitigating circumstances. One factor that a court will take into account in sentencing is whether the defendant has pleaded guilty and, if they have, at what stage they did so. There is a sliding scale of reductions. The Sentencing Guidelines Council has issued guidance to the courts on the level of discount to be applied. The sliding scale effectively means that the earlier the plea is changed to one of guilty, the greater the discount that the defendant should get. That is obviously to encourage defendants to come forward and enter a guilty plea, where it is appropriate for them to do so. That is intended to save victims and their families the ordeal of a trial and to reduce the cost to the justice system.

Mr. Wilson: Will the Minister clarify what that means in practical terms in relation to a two-year minimum sentence? Mitigating circumstances may have to be taken into account, which could mean a reduction in the minimum sentence. Furthermore, if someone pleads guilty, there will also be a third off. In fact, therefore, the two-year minimum sentence is not a minimum sentence at all, is it?

Claire Ward: That depends on the court’s sentencing and on whether it has taken into account the period for which a guilty plea has stood and how long the discount will be. The court will take such things into account before determining the sentence. One of the most important things about the Sentencing Guidelines Council is that it does not operate in a vacuum or in isolation; it consults the public to review the guidelines that it issues to the courts. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 is also due to replace the Sentencing Guidelines Council with the Sentencing Council, one of whose duties will be to have a much greater regard to the impact that sentences will have on victims and their families.

Sentencing guidelines must, of course, provide detailed guidance to courts on the level of sentencing that they should consider in respect of individual offences. We established the Sentencing Guidelines Council in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 to promote consistency in sentencing. All courts must have regard to the council’s guidelines. As I said, the most important change in the 2009 Act for many victims will be the requirement on the Sentencing Council to have regard to the impact that sentencing may have on victims.

None of those points about the Sentencing Council can, however, alter the fact that road traffic cases can be particularly difficult for the courts. That is because it is not always the worst transgression by a driver that has the most tragic consequences. Sometimes the consequences of a collision may be entirely disproportionate to the culpability of the offender. A relatively minor misdemeanour by a driver may have tragic consequences, whereas thoroughly reckless behaviour on the road may fortuitously result in little, if any, harm. The law therefore seeks to punish those who cause death or injury on the road in a way that is appropriate to the degree of blameworthiness on the part of the driver. Ultimately, it is for the prosecuting authorities to decide on the appropriate charge in each individual case and for the courts to set the sentence they believe to be appropriate in all the circumstances.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of compensation in road traffic accidents. He is right that the criminal injuries compensation scheme does not compensate for bereavement caused as a result of culpable road traffic accidents. That is because the scheme’s remit was never designed to cover such cases. The purpose of the CICS is to provide compensation to blameless persons who have sustained criminal injury. Overwhelmingly, it provides support to victims of crimes of violence. The scheme states that a personal injury is not a criminal injury where the injury is attributable to the use of a vehicle, except where the vehicle was used so as deliberately to inflict, or attempt to inflict, injury on any person.

It is also true that the courts do not generally have powers to make compensation orders in respect of road traffic accidents. Compensation orders were first introduced in 1972 and have been an important sentencing option for the courts. However, compensation in criminal cases is not provided primarily as a means of making good the losses of the victim, but as an element in the overall punishment of the offender and to provide a degree of financial recompense to the victim. A compensation order is a sentence of the court, like a fine, albeit one that brings home to the offender the impact of their offence against the victim and which provides at least some recompense.

Road traffic accidents, however, are generally excluded by statute from the scope of compensation orders. The courts can make an order in respect of injury or loss following a road traffic accident only if the loss involves damage to the victim’s property when it was not in their possession or if the offender was uninsured and no compensation is payable under any arrangements to which the Secretary of State is a party. In practice, the Crown Prosecution Service will not ask for a compensation order if the Motor Insurers Bureau will meet the claim. The MIB is a non-profit-making organisation set up by the motor insurance industry to compensate victims of motor accidents that involve uninsured and untraced drivers. It is a required scheme under European regulations.

That statutory exclusion has existed since 1972. It probably arises from a need to make it clear that third-party insurance is the first port of call for any compensation claim arising from a motor accident and from the fact that many road traffic accidents involve complex quantum and liability issues, which would not necessarily have been settled by parallel criminal proceedings.

2 pm
Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).

 

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