Justice review letter to Ken Clarke

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British Cycling write to the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, asking for a comprehensive review of the criminal justice system and how it should be changed to better protect road users.

Letter sent on 1 June 2012

Dear Lord Chancellor

Comprehensive review of the criminal justice system and how it should be changed to better protect road users

We are writing to request that the government implements a comprehensive review of the criminal justice system to ensure that it better protects people, particularly cyclists and other vulnerable road users. Specifically, we believe that the way in which incidents where cyclists are killed or injured are investigated and prosecuted needs careful review.

British Cycling is the national governing body for cycling, committed to supporting cycling at all levels, from our elite athletes who compete at the Olympics and Paralympics to recreational cyclists and commuters. This is an issue which concerns everyone who cycles, whether they are a world champion or someone who rides their bike to work occasionally. Our call for a review is backed by our 48,000 members and by Cycling Weekly, the UK’s best-selling cycling magazine.  It is also supported by the CTC, Sustrans, the London Cycling Campaign, the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group, The Times, RoadPeace, Brake, Leigh Day & Co solicitors, the Road Danger Reduction Forum and many others.

The creation of a safe and welcoming environment for cycling has many elements. One of those elements is how adequately people feel they are protected by the law. It is clear to us that the current justice system often delivers results which send the wrong message about the right of people to ride safely on the roads. Most of our members are car drivers and we do not believe this is a car versus cyclist issue. We believe the review we are calling for is an essential element in building a better culture of mutual respect on the roads where incidents which result in death and injury are treated in a way which is fair to everyone concerned and creates the right incentives for people to behave responsibly.

We are also writing to your colleagues Theresa May MP at the Home Office, Justine Greening MP at the Department for Transport, Kier Starmer the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Association of Chief Police Officers about this review as cross-departmental support is needed given the range of organisations involved in investigating a crash, convicting and sentencing an offender. 

The four essential elements of the review, to cover each part of the prosecution process from crash investigation through to sentencing are:

(a) A full analysis of the way that the police and coroners investigate these cases. Crash investigation processes vary from force to force and coroners’ evaluation of evidence is inconsistent across the country. We believe that cycling awareness training for crash investigators should be introduced as standard, extended to coroners and coroners should be encouraged to use their powers to recommend measures to prevent future deaths in road crashes.  Victims and their families frequently find they have little or no information on how the case is proceeding and what, if any, charges are being considered and why.  We also believe that the new Chief Coroner should consider how victims and families may gain advance access to police reports and that there should be a standard approach to families’ questions at inquests, particularly where those families do not have the resources for legal representation. 

(b) Review of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) charging standards and legal guidance to properly deal with the seriousness of incidents where road users are killed or injured. It often appears that the CPS chooses to go for inappropriately lighter charges or no charge at all. 

(c) A full examination of the offences available to the CPS. The offence of ‘causing death by careless driving’ came into effect four years ago and its effectiveness should now be reviewed, in conjunction with other related offences. We believe that the threshold for the more serious 'causing death by dangerous driving' offence may be too high, at least  in the perception of many prosecutors who take the charging decisions, which is contributing to a large proportion of cases being charged as 'causing death by careless driving.'   The Ministry of Justice data on convictions of death by driving charges indicates that since the introduction of the offense of ‘causing death by careless driving’ in 2008, the number of those convicted of the more severe charge of ‘death by dangerous driving’ has fallen significantly. 

(d) A review of the sentencing guidelines to ensure they adequately reflect the consequences of the offense. Assault cases were reviewed and extensively revised by the Sentencing Council last year to enable the courts to take greater account of the harm suffered by the victim. We believe that harm caused to road users and the impact on their families should be specifically dealt with in a similar way.  We also believe that there may be a strong case for the guidelines to encourage longer driving bans. 

Ministry of Justice data demonstrates that in 2010 the vast majority of those convicted of ‘causing death by careless driving’ were given community orders, with only 12% receiving custodial sentences.  Almost all cases of causing death by careless driving are treated by the Courts as being in the lowest of the three levels set out by the Sentencing Council in its Definitive Guidelines.  This is the only level which has a non-custodial sentence as a ‘starting point’ and it is intended to apply to cases of ‘careless or inconsiderate driving arising out of momentary inattention’.  We believe this concept of ‘momentary inattention’ to be unhelpful in a driving context since it is so easily claimed and difficult to refute. 

We believe that the sentences given out when vulnerable road users are injured or killed frequently undermine confidence in the justice system and send the wrong message about how we as a society value life and the right of people to travel safely.

We have written to the Lord Chief Justice about our concerns around sentencing twice this year.  We have not had a reply.  These letters are enclosed. 

Could we please have a meeting with yourself, Ms May and Ms Greening to discuss the issues and consider a comprehensive review to include the points set out above.

We hope to hear from you and your colleagues shortly.

Yours sincerely

Martin Gibbs, Policy & Legal Affairs Director

Encl.     Letter to Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales dated 27 February 2012

Letter to Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales dated 19 April 2012

British Cycling Commute Membership