Gareth Johnson, the Conservative MP for Dartford, has called for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to more frequently consider charging with manslaughter rather than death by dangerous driving. He argues that this would allow life sentences to be handed out, rather than a maximum of 14 years.
The comments were made during a House of Commons adjournment debate on sentencing for dangerous driving offences.
“If a person causes someone’s death by behaving in a grossly negligent or reckless manner anywhere else in society, they are charged with manslaughter. If that happens on the road, however, they are not; they are charged with death by dangerous driving. There is no legal reason why that should be.”
Johnson argues that if a person is convicted of manslaughter, it gives the sentencing court far more powers and a maximum possible sentence of life, rather than 14 years. However, Mike Penning, the Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims, responded by saying that it was a question of whether the driver intended to go and do what they did and that this was why the CPS tended to hold back from prosecuting for murder or manslaughter.
The debate had been secured by Alok Sharma, the Conservative MP for Reading West. He is pushing for a change in sentencing laws in the wake of a case involving two of his constituents, cyclists John Morland and Kris Jarvis, who were killed as a result of the dangerous driving of Alexander Walter earlier this year.
Walter was driving without insurance, at 70mph in a 30mph zone, whilst already disqualified from driving. He was nearly two and a half times over the alcohol limit and was being pursued by police. He had also taken cocaine less than 24 hours prior to the incident and had 67 previous criminal convictions, including a bomb hoax only days after 9/11. After pleading guilty to causing death by dangerous driving, he was sentenced to 10 years and three months imprisonment.
Sharma would like to see consecutive, rather than concurrent sentences being served.
“If Walter had been given 14 years for each death, he would now be facing 28 years behind bars rather than being out in what will probably be a lot less than 10 years.”
Sharma drew attention to an online petition launched by Tracey Fidler and Hayley Lindsay, the fiancées of Jarvis and Morland. The petition calls for drivers to receive a maximum sentence of 14 years per person who has been killed and so far, 25,000 people have signed.
“I do not believe that 10 years was a long enough sentence for what Walter did. The families affected do not believe that, and, so far, 25,000 people across our land do not, either. We have heard today that Members of Parliament representing many, many people across our country do not believe that that was right. I would like us all to sign the petition, which should influence the review, and to bring about a change in the law.”
The Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, has already committed to a review of all driving related offences and penalties which is expected to conclude early next year. Penning, the minister responding to the debate, committed to holding a public consultation on the issue. Sharma said he would be urging as many people as possible to take part, to make absolutely clear the strength of public feeling.
CTC, the national cycling charity, have been one of the groups campaigning for a sentencing review. Roger Geffen, Campaigns and Policy Director, said:
“Driving is unique among day-to-day activities, in that a momentary lapse of attention can lead to another person being killed or maimed. CTC’s Road Justice campaign believes the legal system needs to reinforce the responsibilities of drivers for the safety of other road users – particularly pedestrians and cyclists – while recognising that jurors will sometimes be reluctant to convict drivers for crimes they know they could easily have committed themselves.
“The courts need to be much more willing to use long driving bans as a sentencing option, with long custodial sentences being reserved for really serious cases – like that of Alexander Farrar Walter – where there is a significant risk of the driver reoffending. This approach ensures public protection, as well as providing a strong deterrent to prevent bad driving occurring in the first place.”