Today’s news about a huge hike in the maximum level of fine that can be imposed on a speeding motorist casts a spotlight on what a magistrate’s sentencing powers actually are. Looking at speeding in particular, we see that it is a summary only offence, which means it is almost always dealt with at a Magistrates’ Court, though the case can be committed to the Crown Court for sentencing.
But presuming those on the bench decide to exercise their own powers, how will they set a fine? According to the Sentencing Guidelines Council there are three core elements:
“The amount of the fine must reflect the seriousness of the offence.
“The court must also take into account the financial circumstances of the offender; this applies whether it has the effect of increasing or reducing the fine. Normally a fine should be of an amount that is capable of being paid within 12 months.
“The aim is for the fine to have an equal impact on offenders with different financial circumstances; it should be a hardship but should not force the offender below a reasonable ‘subsistence’ level.”
The guidelines say a speeding offence attracts a Level 3 fine (which under the new regime will have a maximum limit of £4,000) or Level 4 if it is on the motorway (new maximum of £10,000)
Taking into account an offender’s income sounds sensible. What is surprising and not fully explained is why there has been such a huge increase in the maximum fine level now. What is the problem that is trying to be solved? Is there a large number of wealthy speeders for whom the current deterrent is not enough?
Interestingly, the number of people breaking the speed limit, in free flow traffic, has been falling on most roads for the best part of a decade as Department for Transport figures showed last week. Clearly there are still many who are defying the rules but it does suggest that, overall, motorists are becoming more law abiding rather than less.
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At the risk of biting off more than I can chew it might be worth trying to define what we are trying to achieve when we punish someone for a crime.
I suppose the starting point is determining what a crime is. The glib answer is that it is the result of someone breaking the criminal law. When it comes to motoring, the laws drivers are at the risk of contravening include those relating to speed limits. While we could legitimately discuss whether the current speed limits are appropriate, the fact remains they are what they are and most responsible motorists will abide by them – whatever their underlying thoughts on their validity.
So what happens when a crime is committed and the person who erred is found guilty? Normally they receive a punishment to fit the crime; something which serves as a suitable demonstration of how seriously society regards that crime and also severe enough to deter a significant amount of people from repeating the unlawful activity.
Of course a second pillar of the criminal justice system (CJS) is the ability of the police to catch offenders or at least create the impression that they will be caught.
It is by juggling these two aspects of the CJS that the lowest possible crime rate can be achieved.
But what a punishment regime should not be is a revenue raiser, least of all one which treats one set of offenders differently to another. Yet that is what the reported changes related to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme seem in danger of becoming: a method of using fines to generate income – rather than being a proportional punishment – and isolating one type of criminal perpetrator from the others. This runs the risk of bringing the law into disrepute. Dare I say, it might even be illegal.
Perhaps this whole debate is simply one big kite flying exercise to gauge public reaction to such a scheme. It will be fascinating to see how long this particular kite remains airborne.
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