CTC's Sentencing Debate sparks call to email Justice Minister

Simeon Maskrey QC speaking at the Sentencing Debate
The debate on Friday 13 June highlighted high levels of dissatisfaction with the sentencing of drivers who endanger other road users. It also aimed to influence the Sentencing Council's review of sentencing guidelines for driving offences.

Officials from the Sentencing Council attended the event at 7 Bedford Row Chambers, making it a valuable opportunity to shape the review. 

The debate, which formed part of CTC's Road Justice campaign, sparked a call to supporters to email the Justice Minister urging him to end the legal system's culture of complacency towards bad driving.

Two Road Justice campaign reports, 'Charging and Prosecution' and 'The Courts and Sentencing', were launched at the event. The reports can be downloaded from the Road Justice website

Topics covered

Contributors, including two members of the Queen's Counsel (one of which is also a judge), the head of the Magistrates Association, two professors of law, campaigners and victims, discussed:

• Appropriate penalties for bad driving, including driving bans and vehicle confiscation -  Martin Porter QC was particularly supportive of crushing the vehicles of drivers who break driving bans, with contributors on Twitter favouring auctioning of vehicles and the proceeds going towards victims' services. Simeon Maskrey QC argued for extended re-tests to be imposed on all drivers who have their licence taken away, not only when a ban is mandatory.

• The value of custodial and non-custodial sentences – Chris Brace of the Magistrates Association said that robust evidence of the effectiveness of alternative sentencing options is needed and professor Sally Cunningham suggested a comparison be made with EU countries who impose shorter custodial sentences but have better road safety records.

• The influence of sentencing on jury’s willingness to convict – Professor Cheryl Thomas who is an expert on jury and judicial decision making, said juries are not given information about the potential sentence a defendant could receive, thus their verdicts should not be affected by the type of sentence available. Hence, sentencing should not have any influence on jury’s willingness to convict.

• However, Professor Thomas did point out that in cases where defendants face two charges: one of careless driving and one of dangerous driving, juries have requested written instructions on the difference between dangerous and careless, as the distinction is far from clear. Simeon Maskrey added that jury’s verdicts can be swayed by misconceptions about cycling made throughout a case.

•  The need to get tougher on low level offending – Simeon Maskrey underlined the need for a detailed examination of how the police are handling low level offending and Chris Brace emphasised that the Magistrates Association wants to ensure low level offences are dealt with appropriately.   

• And the discrepancy between maximum sentences for offences resulting in injury or death - there was much discussion of how the consequences of bad driving often have far greater bearing on the sentence imposed than the standard of driving itself. Simeon Maskrey QC highlighted how the extent of injury suffered is often serendipitous and therefore shouldn’t lead to such huge variation in the level of sentence imposed. There was unanimous agreement that consequences are given far too much weight in sentencing and that this should be rectified.

It’s our aim to ensure sentences punish offenders and deter people from committing offences, in order to keep the public safe – and in the case of road crime, that means everyone who uses our roads. Sentencing guidelines must reflect these objectives

Rhia Weston

CTC's Road Justice Campaign Coordinator

Offences and penalties review

The Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, announced in early May that the Ministry of Justice would conduct a review of offences and penalties 'in the next few months'. This review will look at the legislation regarding driving offences and could lead to new offences being created and maximum and minimum penalty boundaries being changed. 

Grayling has also announced that magistrates are now able to impose much higher fines on bad drivers and that the Government plans to get tough on disqualified drivers who break driving bans, especially those that kill or seriously injure whilst doing so.

However, no mention has yet been made of when, or even if, the public will be consulted on their views in relation to the offences and penalties review.

Email the Justice Minister

Sentencing is a complex issue and campaigners face a long hard slog to improve it. To make a start, CTC is demanding that Chris Grayling use the opportunity that the offences and penalties review presents to:

• Emphasise more and longer driving bans as a sentencing option, with prison sentences for those who break them;

• End the dismissal of 'dangerous' driving as merely 'careless' driving;

• Launch a public consultation no later than mid-September 2014.

CTC is calling on supporters to email the Justice Minister urging him to make these commitments.

Sentencing guidelines review

Judges follow sentencing guidelines to make sure sentences are consistent across the country and appropriate relative to the seriousness of the offence. However, when it comes to road traffic offences, the current sentencing guidelines fail to do their intended job.

review of sentencing guidelines, to be carried out by the Sentencing Council, will follow the Government's review of offences and penalties. The sentencing guidelines review is independent of Government and will involve a public consultation on the proposals. 

Lissa Matthews of the Sentencing Council explained at the debate that the scope of the sentencing guidelines review is yet to be planned out, so could include all driving offences, not only the most serious. Widening the scope of the review is something CTC has been pushing for.

In the video below Ms Matthews tells interested parties how they can contribute to the debate. We also interviewed blogger Bill Chidley who questioned whether judges misunderstood or willfully misinterpret sentencing guidelines. Additional videos from the debate can be found on our YouTube Channel.