dangerous drivers, a trial by jury?

I have recently had opportunity to consider the article written by Martin Porter concerning the more serious driving offences and whether a Defendant should have the option of trial by jury.

It was ultimately the opinion of the author that this option should be removed and the trial should proceed before the Magistrates. There are a number of reasons given by Mr Porter for his views which can now be considered

“I believe it would make justice more likely, particularly for the most vulnerable road users, cyclists and pedestrians, who are currently too often being failed”.

Mr Porter seems to suggest that removing the fundamental right to trial by peers would result in justice. It does however, leave open to interpretation, what exactly is meant by justice given that it is suggested that this would likely result in more convictions.

Mr Porter talks about the rationale behind a solicitor’s advice to elect Crown Court trial and seems to attribute this solely to the lower conviction rates at Crown Court. Again, in my view this shows an over simplified view of the situation and ignores the practicalities. If there is a perception is that the likelihood of conviction is higher at the Magistrates Court, then proper advice would be to suggest that a fairer trial may be achieved at the Crown Court. The reasons for this may not only though be human element obtained with a jury as practising Solicitors and Barristers within this field can often attest. There are often better resources available for Crown Court trials and with the active case management of a seasoned Judge, issues such as a disclosure can bring about a fairer trial. It is more likely that any trial will proceed in line with the proper rule of law.

It is additionally suggested that fewer Jurors would identify with a victim, but would with a driver. Arguably, the whole concept of trial by jury is that a they are representative of the public and as such should contain a true cross section. This is not only coincidental to the system but fundamental and desirable.

Jury participation is arguably more relevant in cases such as careless and dangerous driving, especially where a death has been involved, bearing in mind the legal tests for such offences. For a person to be guilty, their driving must fall below a particular standard, this is a sliding scale dependent on the offence charged. Importantly however, the benchmark is the driving that would be expected of a ‘careful and competent’ driver in a particular case. A Juror, who may be considered to be such a careful and competent driver, are perfectly placed to apply that test.

It is further considered that empathy or compassion on behalf of the jury may well lead to an acquittal. From my experience, when a death is involved, the jury will often sympathise with all parties to equal degrees. Another interpretation of jury empathy or compassion would actually be a juror’s proper understanding of the tests to be applied. A juror may be of the view that they, as a careful and competent driver, occasionally travels at slightly higher speeds that the limit or does not give 100% of their attention at all times. This is in my view not simply empathetic, but rather an insightful interpretation as to what is to be expected to be considered careful and competent.

It is important to remember that the law does not require a driver to be perfect. Were this the case, every time there was any form of incident or collision, drivers would likely end up with a conviction for a driving offence. Pivotal to the test in my suggestion is the word ‘competent’. There is no requirement to be; perfect, excellent, very good or even be a good driver. A motorist must only be competent.

We would suggest that the true reason behind the potentially lower rates of convictions at the Crown Court, is that the full legal tests are properly explained and juries properly directed. The jury is also made up of a series of drivers who are properly able to consider their own driving as a potential yardstick. After all, each case must be considered on its own merits and the collective views of a jury are well suited to this task.

It must be conceded that justice is in itself a subjective issue. If a loved one has been killed as a result of driving, potentially carelessly, then an acquittal will never be considered justice. It is also unlikely to be the case that any conviction or level of penalty will ever truly be accepted as just by those affected by such loss.

Nick Terry, Partner, Burton Copeland Solicitors