Thomas Mitchell: Road crime and the myth of a life sentence
I recently had the privilege of joining a webinar hosted by RoadPeace. RoadPeace provide information and support services to people bereaved or seriously injured in road crashes, writes Thomas Mitchell.
The webinar’s panel consisted of Prof Sally Kyd, Head of Leicester Law School – an expert in criminal law specialising in road traffic offences, Calvin Buckley – whose partner, Frankie Julia Hough, and their unborn daughter, Neeve, were killed by a dangerous driver last year, Polly Herbert, a road traffic injury lawyer, who was Calvin’s solicitor in respect of a civil claim for damages following the death of Frankie and Nic Atkinson KC, a retired barrister and part-time judge, with a career spanning almost 50 years.
The webinar focused on the change in the law which came into force in 2022 in the form of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. The Act is needlessly complex but the main take away has been the increase in the maximum sentence for ‘causing death by dangerous driving’ from 14 years to life in prison. However, despite the increase in desire to have offenders spend a life time behind bars for killing on the road, a life sentence has yet to be a passed for causing death by dangerous driving.
Calvin, who spoke eloquently, told us about the sentence of 12 years imposed on a driver who had killed his partner and unborn daughter on the M66 in Greater Manchester. The driver had been travelling at speeds of up to 123mph, filming himself on his phone whilst doing so. The driver’s sentence was increased on appeal to 15 years’ imprisonment, but in Calvin’s view, this was not enough. Not only had Calvin to go through the traumatic appeals process, but the devastation caused following the sentence of 12 years being handed down in the original trial for not just Calvin, but Frankie’s wider family, was evident. Calvin’s view was that the whole focus of the trial had been to lessen the sentence imposed upon the driver. As a victim, he felt he had been utterly let down by the justice system. The initial sentence was only remedied by the appeals procedure where recognition of the devastation of Frankie’s death on her wider family was considered. This then allowed a more appropriate sentence to be imposed upon the driver. Calvin felt the court should have gone further still by imposing a life sentence upon the driver.
So, despite the change in the law, why are life sentences not being imposed in the most serious of cases? Polly Herbert, Calvin’s solicitor, was able to provide some insight into this in respect of his civil claim. Government announced and promised back in 2017 that killer drivers would face life behind bars. However, between this announcement and the sentencing guidelines which are now in place, something has gone terribly wrong and instead sentencing recommendations have been paired back. Polly explained that following the trial referred to above, the Attorney General had met with both her and Calvin and explained that the only scenario where they envisaged a life sentence being passed for killing somebody on the roads, was if an offender had previously been convicted for causing death by dangerous driving, served a prison sentence, been released from prison and gone back out and killed again. Only then would a life sentence be imposed!
One of the most interesting insights during the webinar came from Nic Atkinson KC. His contribution focused on the Sentencing Council, a public body that is responsible for developing sentencing guidelines. His view was that despite the idea behind creation of the council back in 2010 being that tougher, more uniform sentences for offences would be achieved, in fact the opposite had happened. He gave the example of Parliament passing a clear statutory provision for life imprisonment for those who kill on the road but, in his view, when it comes to sentencing, you often see a watering down of the principle which Parliament sought to impose due to the guidelines produced by the Sentencing Council, which judges are compelled to follow.
The Sentencing Council set out a top tariff of 18 years as a maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving, not life. This balanced against sentencing discounts available for offenders who plead guilty at an early stage in judicial proceedings can result in sentences like the one passed in Frankie’s case where 12 years is a realistic outcome for causing her death, justifiably so according to the sentencing council.
Whilst the debate about tougher sentences will no doubt continue, I believe more consideration should be given to other forms of punishment and prevention. Prof Kyd made some interesting observations in relation to this. The imposition of lifetime driving bans should, in her view, be considered more widespread. This is an option available to a court and Prof Kyd discussed the case of Noble from 2002. In that case, the Court of Appeal accepted that where an individual is seen to be a danger on the road indefinitely, it would be appropriate to impose a lifetime driving ban. Prof Kyd blamed the car culture in this country as the reason why this type of sentencing isn’t more widespread.
Whilst there is universal agreement that any death on the roads is one too many, there is not universal agreement about how we tackle this issue from preventing the incident in the first place, to dealing with the fall out after. Whilst Judges do now have the power to hand down stiffer sentences to those who kill on the roads, my view is that much more must be done by way of prevention. The bereaved serve lifelong sentences of their own and no amount of punishment or custodial sentencing will ever make up for the loss of a loved one.
A recording of the webinar can be found on YouTube.
Thomas Mitchell is an associate at RTA LAW LLP