Serious injuries and comical sentencing
Tough talk but timid sentencing
Three years ago the Government introduced legislation to create the new offence of 'causing serious injury by dangerous driving'. The idea was to ensure that when victims of dangerous drivers were 'only' seriously and perhaps permanently injured, but survived perhaps by luck or through incredible medical treatment, the drivers were prosecuted not just for dangerous driving (two year maximum prison sentence), but for causing serious injury by dangerous driving, which carries a five-year maximum sentence.
Great idea, but a different charge and increased maximum sentence mean nothing if judges continue to sentence offenders with scant regard to their victims' suffering. Cases reported recently would appear to suggest that if the medics can save the maimed cyclist, the motorist can expect a suspended sentence – liberty or custody determined by the surgeon's expertise rather than the standard of driving or severity of injury or impairment.
Alexander William Coombes and the Chichester Christmas cheer
Festive cheer and goodwill to all men must have been the prevailing sentiment as Chichester Crown Court wound down for Christmas. Thirty-year-old Alexander William Coombes appeared before the benevolent judge on 18 December, having pleaded guilty to causing serious injury by dangerous driving, failing to stop after an accident, and for good measure, no insurance.
Coombes was driving along the A29 at Shripney, Bognor Regis, in the early hours of 4 February 2014. At an earlier hearing he had admitted that he was speeding while listening to loud music. Somehow he managed to drive into a 45-year-old cyclist travelling in the same direction.
Denial and self preservation
Coombes initially argued that he had not realised he had hit anyone. The problem with that story was that, as Sergeant Rob Baldwin from Sussex Roads Policing pointed out, Coombes had obliterated one of his tyres, damaged a wing mirror and lost some of the bodywork on his car. You might have expected Coombes to notice something was awry, but no, he carried on driving.
The police found Coombes' abandoned vehicle five miles from the scene, in a dangerous condition. Yes, Coombes' case was that although he had not realised he had hit anyone, or that he was driving a vehicle in a dangerous condition, he nevertheless decided to abandon his car five miles up the road. Nothing suspicious there. That argument was rejected, so Coombes then admitted his guilt.
Meanwhile the un-named cyclist was left at the roadside seriously injured and in urgent need of medical attention. Fortunately he was found quickly and taken to Southampton General Hospital, where he underwent several operations and months of rehabilitation.
Suspending belief with the sentence
Looking at the aggravated features of this offence, we have an uninsured driver driving dangerously who caused life-threatening injuries to a cyclist. He didn't immediately stop, phone for an ambulance, fully co-operate with the police and make unequivocal admissions of guilt, accepting his responsibility and asking for the court's mercy. Rather, he tried to get away with it, aggravating the offence and displaying no regard for his victim's welfare.
Lots of ticks in the aggravating features box and few in the mitigation box. Surely a case for an immediate custodial sentence?
No, a three-month prison sentence suspended for 12 months.
How much more serious can you get?
If this case, in terms of seriousness, only merits a three-month custody tariff, what must a driver have to do in order to approach the maximum five-year tariff?
If this case merits suspension of the sentence, which case does not?
The judge had to disqualify Coombes for at least 12 months and order him to take an extended re-test. He increased that minimum ban to 15 months, begging the question whether this was really a case to be considering penalties at the minimum end of the scale rather than the opposite end.
Notwithstanding the substantial costs and compensation the judge ordered him to pay, Coombes must have thought Christmas had come early.
Philip Stephens and the Newport suspension
Regrettably the Coombes' case, though perhaps one of the most appalling examples of unduly lenient sentencing in serious injury dangerous driving cases, is not unique. A pattern appears to be developing. Yesterday (13 January), press reports emerged regarding the sentencing of sixty-two-year old Philip Stephens. He pleaded guilty on Monday morning before the start of his trial in Newport for causing serious injury by dangerous driving. Another driver whose guilty plea and admission of responsibility came at the 11th hour.
On 31 October 2014, Stephens was driving an HGV on the A4810 at Llandevenny near Magor when he pulled out into the path of 34-year-old cyclist Jonathan Davies. Stephens' lawyers admitted that he had seen Davies, but pulled out because he thought the cyclist was going to turn left at the junction.
Davies was hospitalised for seven weeks, initially in the high dependency ward, his injuries including a fractured pelvis, shoulder and rib cage as well as punctures to both lungs, a laceration to his spleen and multiple scarring. He has undergone further surgery since his initial discharge from hospital, is very self-conscious about his scars, and 16 months on is still not ready to cycle on the roads.
As you will have realised by now, Stephens also received a suspended sentence – nine months prison suspended for two years. He was also disqualified from driving for three years.
Consistently inconsistent sentencing
Stephens was a professional driver who came close to killing Davies, yet only received a suspended sentence despite the appalling injuries Davies sustained. While this sentence appears unduly lenient, it also demonstrates the absurdity of the sentencing in the Coombes case. If you consider the aggravating features outlined above in Coombes' case, it is impossible to argue that Stephens' case was more serious.
Coombes got three months suspended for 12. Stephens got nine months suspended for two years. Coombes is off the road for 15 months, Stephens for three years. Coombes being back behind a wheel worries me more. At the risk of stating the obvious, the only consistency in the sentencing is that it is consistently inconsistent.
Causing serious injustice by derisory sentencing
The two cases above are just the most recent examples of derisory sentencing in serious injury dangerous driving cases, the sentencing for which, including the length of any disqualification, is something of a lottery affected by postcode lucky dip as to which judge is allocated, Christmas benevolence and the blowing of the wind.
Review of motoring offences and penalties
An urgent review of motoring offences and penalties is desperately required, but the Government already knows that. The previous Justice Secretary Chris Grayling acknowledged this back in May 2014 when he announced that the Government intended to undertake such a review. As a consequence of that announcement, the Sentencing Council postponed its independent planned review of sentencing guidelines for serious road traffic offences. The consequence is that 20 months later neither review has started and sentencing for serious driving offences is still an unfathomable mess.
As CTC has previously reported, we have been pressing the Ministry of Justice for months to establish when the motoring offences and penalties review will commence. The response to another Parliamentary Question is awaited and various politicians have been and are being lobbied on this issue, but as yet there is no answer from the current Justice Secretary Michael Gove, despite the Government repeating its intention to hold a review, but giving no details as to timescale, within its December 2015 Road Safety Statement.
Liberal Democrat MP Greg Mulholland has picked up some of these concerns regarding sentencing in these cases, presenting the Criminal Driving (Justice for Victims) Bill 2015-16 to Parliament on Tuesday (12 January), which is expected to have a second reading on 11 March. CTC does not agree with all of Mr Mulholland's proposals, but certainly welcomes his efforts to raise the issues and the debate before Parliament, which also presents another opportunity to publicly make the point that we are still waiting for the Government to start a review it promised to undertake 20 months ago.
Does your MP want to work for you?
If you are speaking or writing to your MP and want to add your voice to those chasing Government about this review, there is a question you can ask:
"In May 2014 Chris Grayling promised that the Government would carry out a review of motoring offences and penalties. Can you please ask Michael Gove why this has not started, when will it start and what is the timescale for conclusion?"
Needless to say CTC will continue to lobby and campaign for this review and on these sentencing issues, but if local MPs realise this is something people are concerned about, and want Government to actually fulfil its promises, that can only assist our efforts.
For further instances of miscarriages of justice or weak sentencing in the UK visit www.roadjustice.org.uk.