Justice Minister promises swift consultation on death by dangerous driving sentences - but dismisses manslaughter charges

Written by Tony Millett on .

Westminster HallWestminster HallThe debate Claire Perry MP secured on the sentences handed down for death by dangerous driving brought the Justice Minister, Sam Gyimah MP, to Westminster Hall on Tuesday (September 13.)   He promised that consultation would start before the end of the year on the penalties for dangerous driving offences.

However he offered no hope that the worst cases death by dangerous driving would automatically be charged and tried as manslaughter - one of the actions Mrs Perry's constituent Major Richard Gilbey is calling for in his campaign.  His son, James, was killed in Leeds by two men racing their cars at up to 90 mph - he had just stepped onto a pelican crossing.

The debate in Westminster Hall developed into something of a two-way argument between Mrs Perry and Mr Gyimah.  Two other MPs - one Conservative and one Labour - raised examples from their own constituencies involving death by dangerous driving cases resulting in lenient sentences.  

Mrs Perry quoted Conservative MP Paul Channon who as Transport Secretary was introducing changes to the Road Traffic Act in 1989: "We aim to ensure that the penalty matches the offence and that those who drive very badly are properly punished."   "That", she said, "has been the aim of many governments, and very good work has been done on it."

But last year, Mrs Perry told members, 188 deaths were caused by dangerous driving and 201 by careless driving: "However, although three fifths of people sentenced were jailed, the average sentences were very short - less than four years."

Mrs Perry wanted to know what was stopping judges applying the set tariff of up to 14 years.  She asked the Minister: "...why are these cases not tried as manslaughter.  Involuntary manslaughter is 'where the offender did not intend to kill or cause really serious harm but where death results from an unlawful act or from gross negligence'."

The men found guilty of James Gilbey's killing were plainly breaking the law before he was hit. Mrs Perry said she had been told driving offences could be charged as manslaughter, but apparently only two cases have come to light.

Later, the Minister did as Ministers do - as Mrs Perry will know from her own experience - and said he would find out how many driving offences charges had come to court as manslaughter.

Pointing out that the government had been promising for two years to review the relevant sentencing guidelines, she asked: "Will they look at a maximum tariff of 21 years?"

Replying, Sam Gyimah, gave the ritual statement: "Securing justice for victims and relatives in cases of death by dangerous driving is a priority for the Government" - And he offered his personal and deepest condolences to the Gilbey family.

The Minister went on:  "Successful prosecutions have secured manslaughter convictions in driving cases, but it is worth making the general point that having everything classified as manslaughter does not necessarily guarantee a conviction."  He thought it might mean fewer convictions would be achieved.

This is not, the Minister was finding, a very simple circle to square: "However, for a manslaughter charge to be made, the prosecution needs to prove that there was some element of intent or recklessness regarding the death or injuries that were caused, or that the standard of driving was grossly negligent; in other words, exactly the situation that [Mrs Perry] is describing. "

"However, in many driving cases, the offending behaviour—while highly irresponsible—does not necessarily include the state of mind required for a manslaughter charge to be made. That is why we have specific offences of causing death by careless or dangerous driving."

"What amounts to dangerous driving is determined not by considering the driver’s state of mind or intentions, which in the context of driving are often difficult to ascertain, but by examining the nature of the driving."

Mrs Perry made another valiant attempt to get through to the Minister: "I do not expect the Minister to rewrite the law during the debate, but it seems to me that it is very difficult to explain to Major Gilbey and Mrs Gilbey, and indeed to everybody out there, why this specific case was not a perfect example of gross negligence manslaughter."

A week earlier, the Prime Minister said she believed the Justice Department were looking at sentencing for these crimes.  The sentencing guidelines for these offences are, the Minister confirmed, already under review.

The point remained at the end of this debate that - as both Mrs Perry and the Labour MP, Liz Mcinnes, said - the existing tariff is not being fully used. Why are most offenders sentenced to less than eight years when the tariff goes up to 14 years?

The process of review and consultation needs to create what Mrs Perry defined as 'a very strong deterrent'.

After the debate Mrs Perry and Major Richard Gilbey met the Justice Secretary to discuss the issue further.  It was, Major Gilbey said, a very positive day.