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Landmark ruling on uninsured driving

In an interesting recent development in road traffic law, the Supreme Court has overturned the rules on what is required to constitute the offence of causing death while driving uninsured, unlicensed or disqualified.

From now on, said the Court, someone should only be convicted of the offence if there is “something open to proper criticism in the driving of the defendant, beyond the mere presence of the vehicle on the road, and which contributed in some more than minimal way to the death”.

The accident

The case concerned uninsured and unlicensed driver Mr Hughes, who was driving home with his family in a campervan in October 2009, when he was hit by a car driving on the wrong side of the road.

The car was being driven by a Mr Dickinson, an overtired shift worker and a drug user, with a significant quantity of heroin in his system. He had been driving erratically for some time before the accident occurred. Mr Hughes and his family survived, but Mr Dickinson died as a result of his injuries. 

The prosecution accepted that Mr Hughes was in no way at fault for the accident and could not have done anything to prevent it. The blame was entirely with the driving of Mr Dickinson, yet Mr Hughes was prosecuted under section 3ZB of the Road Traffic Act 1988 for causing the death of Mr Dickinson whilst driving uninsured and without a licence.

Section 3ZB of the Road Traffic Act 1988

Section 3ZB of the Road Traffic Act 1988 is a relatively new offence. It was introduced in the Road Safety Act 2006 and came into effect on 18th August 2008. It provides that:

“A person is guilty of an offence under this section if he causes the death of another person by driving a motor vehicle on a road and, at the time when he is driving, the circumstances are such that he is committing an offence under—

(a) section 87(1) of this Act (driving otherwise than in accordance with a licence),
(b) section 103(1)(b) of this Act (driving while disqualified), or
(c) section 143 of this Act (using motor vehicle while uninsured or unsecured against third party risks).”

The case goes to court

Until recently, section 3ZB was treated as a sort of strict liability offence: if you were involved in the death of a person when you were driving while uninsured, unlicensed or disqualified then you were guilty of the offence. The quality of your driving was irrelevant.

However, when Mr Hughes came to trial, he argued that he could not have committed an offence under the section because he had not actually caused Mr Dickinson’s death. The trial judge agreed, and the prosecution appealed.

The Court of Appeal, feeling itself bound by an earlier ruling, held that the prosecution did not have to prove any element of fault on the part of Mr Hughes. His mere involvement in the fatal collision was sufficient to commit the offence.

Mr Hughes then appealed in his turn – successfully, as it turns out.

The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court pointed out that if the Court of Appeal were correct, then Mr Hughes would be criminally responsible for Mr Dickinson’s death despite not being at fault at all for the collision. 

In addition, if any of his family had died he would also be criminally responsible for their deaths, despite the fact that if Mr Dickinson had survived he would have been guilty of causing death by, at the very least, careless driving when unfit to drive through drugs.

It all depended on the interpretation of section 3ZB.

“A penal statute falls to be construed with a degree of strictness in favour of the accused,” explained Lord Hughes and Lord Toulson, giving the opinion of the Court. “It is undoubtedly open to Parliament to legislate to create a harsh offence or penalty, just as it is open to it to take away fundamental rights, but it is not to be assumed to have done so unless that interpretation of its statute is compelled, and compelled by the language of the statute itself.”

In this case, the words used in section 3ZB are ambiguous and a less strict interpretation must therefore be imposed.

The words “causes…death…by driving”, should therefore be treated as implying that the defendant must have caused the death in some way. This in itself implies that there must be something in the driving which is open to proper criticism.

The trial judge was therefore right in his approach, said the Supreme Court, sending the case back to Newcastle Crown Court.

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