Plans to increase the small claims limit will create difficulties for road accident victims, the Law Society has warned, as the government begins considering more than 9,000 responses to its proposals for tougher punishment for dangerous drivers.
The number of responses to the ministry’s consultation, which closed this week, is one of the biggest the department has received.
Justice minister Sam Gyimah, in a foreword to the consultation paper, said deaths or serious injuries on the roads ‘cause devastation to victims and their families, for whom the sentence of the court can never adequately reflect the loss of a loved one’.
Chancery Lane, in its response, said it was ‘bound’ to observe that the government’s concern for RTA victims was ‘belied somewhat by its proposals to increase the small claims limit which will, in effect, make it much more difficult for victims of traffic injuries to obtain professional legal representation because of the non-recoverability of costs’.
The Society did not think the maximum penalty for causing death by dangerous driving should be increased from the current level of 14 years to life. ‘It is important for the law to maintain a distinction between driving offences causing death and injury, and other offences against the person and homicide where there is intent,’ it said.
The suggestion that the maximum penalty should be imposed in all cases of death by dangerous driving was ‘contrary to the well-established principle of judicial discretion’, it added.
However, Chancery Lane agreed with Gyimah that sentences must be a matter for the judge to determine in individual cases, based on the full facts of the case and the offender before them.
Increases in penalties for mobile phone offences, particularly the increase in the number of penalty points, were welcomed. The Society suggested the government provide enhanced services through the police, Crown Prosecution Service and Victim Support for better support to victims and relatives ‘in their search for some peace of mind’.
The use of specially trained prosecutors to ensure a consistent approach to the prosecution of fatal incidents was also welcomed.
Chancery Lane agreed that it would be undesirable to abolish the distinction between careless and dangerous driving.
The word ‘careless’ should remain in the legislation, the Society said, ‘and any perceived insult to bereaved families arising from the use of this term should be addressed by way of police, prosecutors and judges better explaining the law and the decision-making’.
Given there is already an offence of causing death by careless driving, an offence where serious injury is caused by careless driving logically follows, the Society said. Two years would be an appropriate and proportionate maximum penalty.
The ministry will set out its plans ‘in the coming months’.