Unlicensed and uninsured: when the victim becomes the perpetrator

When it comes to driving offences, most people aren’t always aware of their rights or the law.

In addition, the last few years have seen an increase in the scrutiny of road safety and driving offences and various measures have been introduced by the government to reduce the number of illegal drivers on UK roads and the impact of uninsured driving. Penalties for those caught driving illegally include seizing of uninsured vehicles; fines up to £5,000; up to six penalty points and even disqualification from driving. 

But what are the penalties when unlicensed or uninsured driving involves death?

You may have heard of a recent court case led by QualitySolicitors John Donkin in the Supreme Court. It provides an interesting yet complex view of road traffic law. Last week Michael Hughes appealed against the decision that he was criminally responsible for the death of a driver, James Dickenson, who had crashed into his vehicle while under the influence of heroin. Although Hughes was driving without insurance and with a provisional licence at the time, he was driving at a steady 45-55mph speed on a 60mph road and had tried to avoid the collision. The fact that the other driver was under the influence of drugs and was the one that actually crashed into Mr Hughes' car was seen as irrelevant to the decision in The Appeal Court. 

You may feel that such a decision would seem illogical and even unfair but under the Road Safety Act (RSA) 2006 it was interpreted that an individual can be considered responsible for the cause of death where they are found to be behind the wheel of their vehicle at the moment it is involved in a road accident. Essentially, Hughes was initially found to be at fault simply for being on the road without a valid licence or insurance, even though his driving was considered faultless. This is strict usage of the law, and we are often left to ask - who is the real victim here?

Well, the Supreme Court ruled that although it is negligent for a driver to take a vehicle out on the road when unlicensed or uninsured, it could not be negligent if the driving was of an acceptable standard. 

Simply put, this means that although you may be held responsible for driving uninsured or unlicensed, in cases that a death is involved, it must be shown that you have done something (or failed to do something) when driving, which has contributed to the death. Before this judgment, it would have been enough for you to be involved in the accident to be held responsible. This has now changed in favour of the responsible driver - the prosecution must show that you were responsible for the accident, not simply involved.

So what does this mean moving forward and more importantly for you? 

According to the RSA 2006, a person who caused death while driving unlawfully (without a valid licence or insurance) would be given a prison sentence of up to two years in the Crown Court, irrespective of how carefully they were driving. There were no standards being considered, nor were there any differences looked at between unlawful, careless or dangerous driving. 

However, thanks to the judgment in the Hughes case, the standard of the driving should now be considered to be able to determine whether you were at fault. Where fault is found, the charge is likely to be death caused by careless driving or a more serious offence. On this basis, it can be expected that very few people will be prosecuted for causing death by unlawful driving in future. 

But before breathing a sigh of relief, though your driving may be faultless, if you’re guilty of unlawful driving which involves a death, you’re likely to be convicted in the Magistrates Court and receive a fine up to £5,000 and/or a prison sentence up to 12 months; a mandatory disqualification or an endorsement of penalty points on your licence; and you may be ordered to take a retest. 

If you would like to speak to a local legal expert about a motoring offence or if you have a conviction for this offence, where there was no fault on your part, you should consider talking to us. We can explore having your conviction set-aside, reducing your disqualification period and perhaps seeking compensation if you received a custodial sentence. Find your nearest QualitySolicitors branch today.

Posted in: Criminal defence

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