Sentencing reforms for dangerous driving charges scrapped, but that’s not the end of the story…
As the law currently stands, the maximum sentence that the courts can impose for an offence of dangerous driving is 2 years in prison. The only situation where a greater sentence for dangerous driving can be imposed is when someone is killed as a result of that dangerous driving, in which case the maximum sentence is one of 14 years.
This 2 year limit applies, then, regardless of the amount of damage caused or injuries sustained by the driver. Many of the country’s judges have frequently expressed frustration with the limits of their sentencing powers in dangerous driving prosecutions, such as in the case of Marr when Judge Steven Everett spoke of his “frustration” that the law prevented him from locking up the driver for longer than 2 years when 3 schoolgirls had almost been killed because of his driving.
It was, therefore, perhaps unsurprising that Karl Turner, Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull East introduced the Dangerous Driving (Maximum Sentence) Bill 2010-11, with the purpose of increasing the maximum sentence for a motoring conviction of dangerous driving from 2 to 7 years. The Bill would allow judges the discretion to redress the balance in favour of the victim. The legislation, which had cross-party support, received an unopposed first reading in the House of Commons on 17 May 2011 with a second reading expected on 28 October 2011. Possibly surprisingly, this Bill has recently been withdrawn.
However, this is not where the story ends. On 7 October 2011, the Ministry of Justice announced the creation of the new offence of ‘causing serious injury by dangerous driving’, which will carry a maximum sentence of 5 years in prison. These changes will be taken forward as part of the Government’s Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill 2010-11, sponsored by the Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke, which is currently working its way through the House of Commons.
This change in the law is in response to pressure from all areas of society – from the public and road safety groups to the judiciary and MPs. Gareth Johnson, Conservative MP for Dartmouth recently said that “all drivers are responsible for errors of judgement. We all can make mistakes when behind the wheel but deliberately driving in a manner that inevitably leads to an accident should be dealt with seriously by the Courts. Too many lives have been ruined by the selfish actions of drivers who use our roads as a race track. It must be right therefore that when these people are convicted of dangerous driving that our Courts have the option of a sentence greater than two years … We all can suffer a loss of concentration when driving but deliberate dangerous driving should be treated differently and that should include the option of longer prison terms than is currently the case.”
This new offence should, however, be reserved for only the most serious of dangerous driving cases. This sentiment is echoed in the Ministry of Justice’s press release accompanying the announcement of the new offence that “for the vast majority of other dangerous driving cases, the maximum penalty of two years’ imprisonment provides the courts with sufficient and proportionate powers to punish offenders.”
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