Too frequently, RoadPeace has seen juries allow law-breaking drivers to walk free despite overwhelming evidence. Their willingness to over-identify with those behind the wheel undermines the rule of law and its enforcement and causes further devastation to bereaved and injured victims. We are therefore very grateful to Martin Porter for drawing attention to this important problem in his recent article in the Guardian.
Martin has proposed removing the right to jury trial for those charged with either-way driving offences (those that can be prosecuted at either the Magistrates Court or Crown Court), starting with dangerous driving that has not caused death or injury. He has stated that any reform should take account of the views of victims and their representatives. Here we try to clarify our position, based on over two decades supporting and representing road crash victims.
For dangerous driving that has not caused death or serious injury
RoadPeace would fully support all such cases starting at the Magistrates Court. But for the worst cases — for multiple repeat offenders or where the disregard for the safety of others was egregious or extended, the appropriate sentences are beyond their powers. These cases should still be transferred to the Crown Court for sentencing.
Should we go further?
RoadPeace has fought for the right to trial at the Crown Court. We campaigned for over 15 years to get death mentioned in the criminal charges and for these cases to be indictable only, i.e. only able to be tried at the Crown Court. Bereaved families do not want the death of their loved one to be a matter for Magistrates. They feel insulted when the death of their loved one is treated in the court which also hears shoplifting and other petty crimes. They do not even want the sentencing of drivers to be held at the Magistrates Court, as seen in the cases involving the killings of Karl Austin and Kevin Lane.
We continue to hold this position.
For other dangerous driving offences
We had previously included serious injury in our position and called for cases involving serious injury to also be heard in the Crown Court.
But, first and foremost, victims want to see guilty drivers face the proper legal consequences of their actions. They do not want guilty drivers to walk away. This not only undermines justice and traffic law enforcement and discourages the CPS from charging on other cases but causes complete devastation to victims, particularly the bereaved.
From a victim’s perspective, removal of the right to a jury trial is not ideal but perhaps, on balance, a necessary compromise.
It may also be unavoidable for other reasons. Times have changed and budgets are tight. Under Austerity measures, there is much pressure to reduce court costs, including jury trials. Removing the right to trial by jury was proposed for a wide range of offences by Lord Leveson in his Review of Efficiency in Criminal Proceedings, published in January 2015. This was not restricted to driving offences, and understandably so, as driving offences account for a small percentage of the cases heard at the Crown Court.
For those that argue there is a fundamental right to a jury trial, we remind them that the vast majority of criminal cases are already heard at the Magistrates Court, and thus without a jury. This reform will only be shifting the line slightly.