13 March 2008

Justice Committee response to the Consultation Guideline: Death by Driving offences

The Justice Committee is grateful for the opportunity to consider this guideline. The Committee heard oral evidence and received written submissions from a number of organizations which by and large expressed support for the Council's proposals. We would like to draw a number of points to your attention.

The Committee heard evidence which supported the Consultation Guideline on the basis that it had managed the very difficult task of balancing culpability and harm in this tragic area. RoSPA told us that this was:

"an enormously difficult job, which is to get this balance between an offender's culpability and the way they were driving and then the awful consequences of a fatal crash which, inevitably, is that at least one innocent person has lost their life."(1)

Witnesses supported the range of sentencing for causing death by careless driving including community orders. The CPS told us that they thought

"the Sentencing Guideline there reflects the enormous spectrum of offending from one end to the other"(2)

and that community orders were appropriate to reflect that range.

Roadpeace, who noted that they had been campaigning for the existence of this offence for 15 years, also did not have any opposition to the starting point involving a non-custodial sentence. They were keen however that the use of community orders for these offences be monitored and evaluated, including to ensure that bereaved families had confidence in these sentences. The Justice Committee would be pleased to hear your thoughts on how such an evaluation could be carried out.

Several witnesses raised concerns about current application of driving disqualifications upon conviction. The guideline does make clear that any disqualification period must be long enough to have the desired impact on the offender taking into account any custodial sentence - dealing with for example RoSPA's current concerns that disqualifications might run out while the offender was in prison anyway. However, Roadpeace wondered why the guideline did not contain any guidance as to how long the disqualification should last. The Committee notes that the Magistrates' Courts Guidelines recently consulted upon included guidance on disqualification periods for other driving offences; they also refer sentencers to the option of interim orders if there is a gap between conviction and sentence. The Committee would be interested in whether the Council would consider adding guidance on these areas or guidance as to what the aims are of a disqualification to aid the sentencer in determining therefore what period is necessary to have the 'desired impact.'

Roadpeace also raised the question as to how these offences of causing death by driving fit with those offences which have the same culpability in terms of level of driving but do not result in death. They noted that the gap between the same kind of culpability that involves injury or no injury at all had been widened.(3) Although clearly the Council has no remit as regards maximum sentences for these offences, the Committee would be interested on whether these concerns have been taken into account, for example in developing the next edition of Magistrates' Court Sentencing Guidelines.

The Committee also discussed with witnesses the purpose of sentencing. The Committee heard the academic research that there is a considerable gap between current sentencing practice and public knowledge of sentencing and of the need for an authoritative body to ensure greater clarity and understanding both as to what sentences are actually handed out and why. The Committee would like the Council to consider whether there is scope to make a brief statement dealing with these points at the beginning of the Guideline.

I look forward to hearing your views on these points and to the publication of the final guideline. I attach a copy of the transcript from our oral evidence session for your information.

Rt Hon Alan Beith MP
Justice Committee

(1) Q39
(2) Q82
(3) Q35