The same standards of justice should apply to vehicle-related offences

In this post I’m going to discuss vehicle-related offences and how the usual burden of proof and general principles of justice do not seem to apply in these cases.

If you are the registered keeper of a vehicle in the UK, then at all times this vehicle has to be either taxed and insured or declared off the road with a statutory off road notification (SORN). If you don’t make this notification, you are liable to receive a fine. To be clear, if your vehicle is not declared off the road, it needs to be both taxed and insured regardless of whether it is being used.

However, this legislation does not prevent cars from being driven untaxed or uninsured on the roads; it merely requires people to declare that they are not going to do this. As such, there is no logical reason for this legislation to exist. If someone does not tax or insure their car, the assumption should be that it is not going to be used on the road. Then if it is seen on the road untaxed or uninsured, a fine can be issued. The current legislation is no different from requiring people to sign a declaration each year that they’re not going to rob a bank.

A quick search of the Internet will show you many cases of people being hassled by the DVLA for not making a SORN declaration, even though in many cases it has seemingly been submitted but subsequently lost. The DVLA has even appeared on Watchdog about this issue. I used to work for the DVLA (not on the enforcements section but in the same building), and I’ve seen plenty of cases of people being treated unfairly. Obviously, how the DVLA in practice handle the offence is not directly related to whether the legislation should in principle exist. However, it is quite clear that the legislation is both unnecessary and in many cases mishandled by the DVLA. It’s time to declare it scrapped.

Vehicle-related offences should be seen in a similar way to other offences – there should be a presumption of innocence until proven otherwise. This means that cars should not be clamped or impounded with a demand for payment before the vehicle is released. This is effectively a conviction with no legal process. This is not to say that fines should not be issued, but they should be disputable in court before any money is paid. To claim the car as a deposit on the fine before the court case is to presume guilt and not an acceptable form of legal justice.

It may seem that if, for example, a car is parked illegally then it’s a clear offence and no further legal proceedings are necessary. However, some offences seem more clear-cut than others in general, but this is no excuse to short cut the full legal process. Where is the line drawn? Furthermore, the car may have been stopped due to an emergency, it may have broken down, or there may be more than one person that drives the car making it unclear who is the guilty party. In this last case, it would be unfair on the vehicle owner if their car is confiscated on demand of payment of a fine when someone else has parked it illegally. One could argue that the vehicle’s owner is responsible for whoever they let drive it, but this is not fair or logical, and it doesn’t apply generally but specifically to motoring offences. For example, if someone borrows my hammer and unknown to me uses it to smash up someone’s property, it is neither my fault nor my legal responsibility.

Generally speaking, it is the registered keeper (who may or may not be the owner) who is by default held responsible for any offences relating to a vehicle, including in the above example. I mentioned the owner in the above example because since it is their car, they would still suffer the loss until it is sorted out, whoever is held legally responsible.

Of course, if a vehicle offence has been committed, it may in many cases be difficult to prove who actually committed the offence if the only evidence relates to the car and not the driver, but that doesn’t make it any fairer to move the goal posts on what standard of evidence is required for the legal process.

If you are the registered keeper of a vehicle that has been driven by an uninsured driver, then you are legally responsible, even if it was not you driving the car and the real perpetrator is known. This is completely arbitrary legislation and puts far too much of a burden on the registered keeper, who should not be held responsible for other people’s lack of insurance and for carrying out extensive checks on friends and family members just in case they’ve been deceived by them.

The police have the power to seize and destroy cars that have been driven without insurance. However, it is not within the understood and accepted role of the police to do this, unless we accept that we’re living in a police state. I do not. They are not a court and should not have these powers. And they can make mistakes.

The conclusion is simple – we need the same standard of justice to apply to offences relating to vehicles as we have in the legal system generally. Anything else is an unacceptable imbalance.

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