Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The trouble with speeding - and a perversion of justice

The recent publicity surrounding the guilty plea of Chris Huhne, and the tragic consequences for both him and his family have been playing on my mind. It's not that I care especially for Mr Huhne, or condone any of his actions (be they personal, political or perjurous) - it's that I'm left deeply uneasy at the thought such a trivial matter could lead, as if by some unstoppable logic, to such extreme an outcome.

The strict legal position is that Chris Huhne perverted the course of justice; that's a serious matter and as a consequence, he should expect a custodial sentence - 6 months, possibly more. As a cyclist, I have more reason than most to ensure speeding offences go punished. It's straightforward isn't it: he did the crime -  he should do the time!  So why I am so uneasy?

The clue, I think, is in the phrase 'perverted the course of justice'.


It was reported this week that an estimated 300,000 people have offloaded speeding points - do we genuinely regard all those as perverters of justice? Do we think that's how they viewed it when say 5 years ago (or more) they asked a wife or partner to avoid an increase in their car insurance?

It seems to me that to categorise the off loading of speeding points as a crime carrying up to a life sentence is a clear case of mislabeling.  More than that, it's an aggrandisement of the issue by the prosecuting authorities and legal system.

Now before you think I've gone all soft, it's important to remember that we're not about to send Chris Huhne to prison because he's an MP, or because he left his wife, or because he wasted public time - it's because he lied to avoid speeding points.

If you're comfortable with that - if you feel the punishment fits the crime, then fine. But to be consistent you'd have to be equally comfortable with dishing out exactly the same punishment to the 300,000 other folks who've done precisely the same.

Imagine if, by the wave of some magic wand, we had the technology to prove all those cases beyond reasonable doubt - would you really be comfortable putting that many people away? Even if we assume the figure of 300,000 is grossly exaggerated (it probably is because the press reported it) -  there'd still be tens of thousands involved.

Almost any adult reading this will know someone who has off loaded penalty points - your sister perhaps, your uncle, a friend?  Six months for them too - does that seem like justice?  Indeed, if you know they did it, why aren't you ratting on them -  after all, perverting the course of justice is a serious crime; surely you're an accomplice if you don't tell?

The truth is we don't regard points dodgers as being in the same league as robbers and muggers. Most of us wouldn't want our friends or neighbours incarcerated for such a relatively trivial offence - that's not to say a substantial deterrent isn't needed. But surely a five-year driving ban would be sufficient, rather than a criminal record, loss of job, ruination of their career and life prospects.

It occurred to me that a fair challenge to this view might lie in the word deterrent.

The problem with points dodging, a prosecutor would say, is that it's easy to do and hard to detect. In these circumstances, we need a strong disincentive - and custodial sentences provide that. By their nature deterrent sentences are disproportionate; they are harsh on the individual but justified by the wider context. That's why we use them for crimes such as drug trafficking, or in the corporate sphere, for breaches of competition law.

All very logical?

I suppose it is when you put it like that - indeed it almost convinced me - and yet I'm still uneasy.

And that's because points dodging isn't the same league as smuggling heroin or price fixing cartels. Drugs traffickers are few and far between, they peddle misery to millions and make a killing for themselves - what's more (and to my mind critically important) they know the consequences of getting caught.

That patently isn't a parallel to the off loading of penalty points - for a start, we know that tens if not hundreds of thousands have done it. Whilst the deception isn't to be condoned, I'd contend it doesn't directly peddle misery in a comparable way. And most important of all, I don't believe that when your sister or your friend or your colleague agreed to take those points they fully understood what that could mean.

But more than all this - sometimes we just need a sense of perspective.

As things stand we have hundreds of thousands of criminals in our midst, all of them hoping they don't have a row with their spouse; all of them hoping there's no magic wand; all of them sleeping uneasily. When you think of it, that's a sad state of affairs.

Call me an old softie if you wish, but in my view, it's also a perversion of justice.

I await comment from the lawyers who follow!


  1. Hello Mark:
    We really do not feel in any way qualified to give a definitive view on this whole sad, sorry affair. Our growing concern lies with people holding public office who claim the moral high ground so often that it is in danger of becoming seriously overcrowded [the high ground that is]and yet their actions show them to be morally bereft. If, of course, they were mere humans with all the frailties that this consists of, then we should,most definitely be prepared to let sleeping or speeding dogs lie.

  2. If deterrence is required enact that for every excess of the speed limit...properly signalled.... or for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the vehicle is confiscated. Permanently.
    Nothing to pervert there.

    There used to be complaints that motoring offences were treated lightly because they were 'middle class' offences.
    That was no less unjust than treating them as potential imprisonment offences when no injury or damage has been inflicted.

    I would like to see some proportion here....more action taken against Newscorp on Hackgate, for example; more energy expended in getting to what lies behind these rumours of a widespread cover up of child abuse in the care system; action taken against psychiatrists and social workers who pervert the course of justice willy nilly in the secrecy of the Family Court system....

    I would venture to respectfully disagree with Lance and Jane...I think our politicians and public servants have passed the stage of claiming the moral high ground...they now stand there, unabashed, in all their sooty glory, totally sure that they are untouchable.

    That is, however, no reason for a disproportionate punishment for an offence which is universally winked at.

  3. A sense of perspecive - that's it in a nutshell. He's hardly Reggie Kray!

  4. On this post Mark I am pleased to say that I wholeheartedly agree with you :-)

  5. Hmmm. I personally believe that people in high office should set an example. They should therefore be punished more severely for transgressions.

    1. Except he's not being punished more severely is he. There are numerous cases of ordinary folk being given custodial sentences for the same misdemeanour. Chris Huhne brings the issue to our attention, but the real point is whether we should send people to prison for this so called 'perversion of justice' or ought we to re-categorise it as something serious, but less than a criminal offence.

    2. Is he not, - I'm not aware of other cases, but in this instance, I think that locking up for the man in the street would be disproportionate. Locking up for a politician? Absolutely right.

  6. Seems to me that the only way to get politicians to court is to go for the small offences as they are untouchable on the big ones.

    A bit like Al Capone who was nabbed on tax evasion, not his murderous activities.

    A sense of perspective is appropriate for those who deserve it, mainly by not being any kind of lying, morally bankrupt, corrupt, power mad politician.

    To be frank, I have very little sympathy for Chris Huhne.

  7. I see where you're coming from, Mark, but I still see deliberately trying to avoid the results of your own wrong action (in this case exceeding the speed limit) by getting someone else to take the blame as a perversion of the course of Justice, albeit a minor one. You call it a misdemeanour, I call it lying to the police and the justice system and (even worse) involving someone else in your lie, and therefore I see it as a fundamentally dishonest action deserving of punishment. Whether that punishment should be imprisonment is up for debate, but the action itself remains dishonest and wrong.

    Perhaps the punishment should be an immediate revocation of the driving licence of both the people concerned, with the requirement to attend a course and resit the driving test before the licence is returned at the end of the punishment period. That message would soon get round.

    1. I agree wholeheartedly and think your proposed punishment is more appropriate. The real point is that I'm troubled were imprisoning people for an offence that as Helen /Fly above eloquently puts it - is something universally winked at.

    2. Is getting someone else to take your penalty points universally winked at or it it the speeding offence itself? I would suggest the latter and think quite a lot of people would find the former totally unacceptable.

    3. I meant that speeding such..are winked at; in part because the way of handling them is unjust if there is no damage or injury.

      Thus off we go on the primrose path of the penalty seen as unjust and measures to avoid it seeming justifiable.

      It is clearly dishonest, but how is one to make that point in a society where dishonesty seems to be the path to wealth and power.

  8. I did comment yesterday but it has disappeared?
    Just said that I agree with you on this post Mark.