Long ago - before the inexorable march of fixed penalties and the advent of driver walk-around apps – operators and drivers might be expected to be prosecuted in the Magistrates Court for road transport offences: excess weight, drivers’ hours, insecure loads and other C&U offences. A possible follow-up Traffic Commissioner public inquiry might then take place.
Today countless matters are dealt with through the issue of DVSA and police roadside fixed penalties against drivers alone though these must be reported to the Traffic Commissioner. Operators are simply not prosecuted as before. The correctness of this is arguable: some operators may take the view that the courts should assist in protecting the level playing field.
Whilst most fixed penalty offers may be properly issued they should all be properly investigated and some will need to be challenged as to their correctness - normally by asking for DVSA review in the first instance. (Police-issued fixed penalties are more problematical, the view being taken that the alternative to paying the penalty is to decline it and ‘let the court sort it out’.)
If a case ends up in court allegations of road transport offences should be managed very carefully. They have unique twists and turns. The courts are not particularly familiar with them.
The direction of travel for the Ministry of Justice is the so-called modernisation of the court system that includes numerous court closures and systems such as online internet plea services. It wants to speed up and simplify the justice system.
One focus has been dealing expeditiously with what it terms ‘minor offences’. These represent a huge proportion of non-imprisonable offences that can only be dealt with the Magistrates Court. Typically they will be road traffic matters but in fact they can also cover most road transport matters. (There are very few road transport matters routinely dealt with in the Crown Court.) The notion that they are ‘minor’ may be true in relative terms compared to other offences but they can have very serious consequences for operators and drivers.
The danger of these ‘modernisation’ systems is for operators and drivers to take short-cuts and not think the case through. This is not a tick-box exercise with no consequences. Many road transport offences no longer have fines capped at £5,000 but are now unlimited. Taking proper legal advice before leaping into entering a guilty plea may mean avoiding a conviction altogether or at least reducing the consequences of such a plea. And, for every conviction there is the knock-on effect on the operator’s licence given the mandatory requirement to notify. Driver convictions may mean Traffic Commissioner driver conduct hearings. It is a fact that some operators and drivers are convicted of offences of which they are not guilty though they plead guilty.
Single Justice Procedure Notice
Today the ‘summons’ may drop through the letterbox in a format under the relatively new Single Justice Procedure that will be unfamiliar to most. Under this system the operator and/or driver is sent a bundle setting out case. This includes the charge(s) and might include witness statements but might only include a case summary. Under this regime an operator/driver can do as follows:
a) opt to plead Guilty under the Single Justice Procedure: the case is dealt with to conclusion by guilty plea(s) and the case is ‘heard’ by a single magistrate sitting together with a legal adviser (court clerk) in your absence. There is no hearing date provided. The result is then notified. This system is already in operation.
b) opt to plead Guilty at court – this will trigger a summons being sent to you in the traditional manner (‘Summons on Referral to Court’)
c) opt to plead Not Guilty – again you will be sent a court summons for the case to proceed to trial.
Of note is that if you do not respond within 21 days then the Single Justice can proceed to hear the case and can find you guilty in your absence. Worryingly this can happen on the basis of a summary of evidence and not statements in the usual format required in criminal cases.
So-called ‘minor’ non-imprisonable offences that are being pursued under this system by police and DVSA can include:
Road transport matters are not the bread and butter offences dealt with in the Magistrates Court on a daily basis. They are often better managed through explanations in person. It may be far better to opt for a court hearing at which to provide full mitigation to get a better outcome than seek to explain it in writing under the Single Justice Procedure held behind closed doors.
Don’t assume guilt but always take specialist advice. The Magistrates’ Court is a criminal court.
Do not plead guilty for an easy life: convictions have consequences.
Even if you plead guilty prepare thoroughly by providing full information to the court.
Consider going to court even if you have the option to deal with matters in writing.
Legal representation costs may be more than compensated for through lower fines.
Remember that lawyers provide vital help regardless whether it is a guilty or not guilty plea!