Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Innocent Motorists Are Admitting To Offences....

.... to avoid cost of court defence

A company director who contacted me for advice last month has admitted a motoring offence he says he has not committed after becoming one of the first to be caught by controversial new rules on court costs.

Ian Harrison, is being deterred from contesting a phone-driving fine due to the cost. Ian Harrison says he cannot afford to take his case to court because even if he won he would have to pay nearly all his legal bills of at least £2,000. The 53-year-old has instead opted to accept a £60 fine and three penalty points.

Since October, criminal defendants in England and Wales have only been allowed to claim back lawyers’ fees at the legal aid rate of £60 – often less than a quarter of the real charge – even if they are acquitted, leaving innocent people heavily out of pocket unless they plead guilty or represent themselves.

Before these new rules were implemented, I started a petition on the Number 10 website which attracted 21,947 signatures.

The petition closed on 07 November and has been acknowledged by the Prime Minister's office but to date, no official response has been issued. This may be due to the fact that The Law Society is seeking a judicial review of the regulations, which affect all defendants who do not receive legal aid. Now that legal action has commenced in the High Court, the government may be less willing to provide a formal response to the issues raised in the petition as this could conflict with their legal stance in response to the Judicial Review proceedings.

Thirty MPs have signed a Commons motion criticising the new rules. However, I think many more would have signed it if the EDM had been tabled earlier within the Parliamentary session.

In 2008, 37 per cent of all cases in magistrates courts were motoring offences.

Mr Harrison, a deputy manager of a firm of bailiffs in Bolton, was issued a penalty notice for using a mobile phone while driving earlier this month, but he says he was using a Bluetooth device which is legal.

When I spoke to him I was pretty convinced we would succeed in securing his acquittal at court if he chose to contest the proceedings. I had to warn him, however, that even if he won his case he could be liable to pay nearly all of his costs, likely to reach more than £2,000.

When interviewed by reporters who covered this story he said “I don’t have that sort of money so I’m just going to take the fine and the three points. If I had been able to get my costs back then because I had a good chance of winning I would have gone for it. But even if I’m vindicated I’ll still be the loser because I’ll have lost £2,000.”

We have seen a drop of 34 per cent in the number of motorists taking their speeding claims to court in November 2009 compared with November 2008, when costs were still met from central funds. There has been little change with the more serious offences like drink driving and dangerous driving as people are still contesting these charges due to the serious ramifications of a conviction. However, with an offence that carries points and poses no risk of a ban, most drivers seem to be admitting to offences rather than be out of pocket. A scenario I predicted would happen when launching the peitition.

Figures from the Ministry of Justice show that 24 per cent of the 1.4 million motorists taken to court in 2007 were cleared, which meant nearly 380,000 drivers recouped about 80 per cent of their costs. Legal aid is not available for most motoring cases and defending speeding cases typically costs at least £2,000, while costs for fighting a drink-driving charge can range between £5,000 and £10,000.

The Ministry of Justice hopes to save £25 million a year by paying only legal aid rates.

Robert Heslett, president of the Law Society, said: “The human cost of this grossly unfair regulation cannot be underestimated.
“It will result in financial disaster for many innocent people, who, having been cleared of any wrong doing, will have endured the stress of these charges, and then face legal fees running into the thousands for the privilege.”
The Law Society’s judicial review has been backed by the Police Federation of England and Wales. Stephen Smith, the deputy general secretary of the federation, which defends officers accused of wrongdoing, said: “The result of the proposed change will put the Federation under severe financial strain or place police officers in a position where the direct cost to them is prohibitive of fighting a charge that they categorically deny.
“To that end, the new regulations are unfair and a backward step to equal access to representation and justice.”

I remain hopeful the review and the increasing pressure on the Government from the Law Society, MPs and the public would force ministers to review the legislation.