Guest blog by Ann Crighton
I am a criminal barrister with thirty years’ experience of both prosecuting and defending, who now specialises in motoring offences.
Regrettably I have come to the conclusion that the police are spending the majority of their time prosecuting people for what most of us would consider minor offences and ignoring crimes we care more about, such as street robberies, burglaries and shoplifting.
The job of the police has become one of revenue collection – taking money from hard working members of our community who very often are unaware they have committed an offence, because they are easy to prosecute, rather than going after criminals who in the legal jargon leave their house with ‘mens rea’, the intention to be dishonest or to do harm.
Let me give you some examples. Yosef Garusi is a hard-working computer technician who lives in Chiswick. You may have seen him zipping about on his unicycle, which for the past eight years he has been using to visit clients. He finds it an efficient, economical and environmentally friendly way of getting about.
During the past eight years he has been seen by local police officers using his unicycle and has even stopped and chatted to them and to community support officers, who have shown no sign of disapproval.
A few weeks ago he was using it in Hyde Park when an officer stopped him and confiscated it. PC Windheuser (shoulder number 24RO or 24PO) also decided to prosecute him for riding it without insurance.
No-one from the police had ever mentioned insurance to him before. Not only was he unaware he needed it, but it is not possible to get insurance for a unicycle because it is impossible to fix a registration plate on it and impossible to tax it. It is not recognised as a mechanically propelled vehicle by the DVLA.
The situation regarding electric bicycles and scooters is confusing. When people go into a shop and buy one they very often unaware that it is unlawful to use them on a public road without insurance, but the Catch 22 is that it is impossible to get insurance.
Over the past few years I have seen many people prosecuted for riding a privately owned electric bicycle or scooter without insurance but I have never yet seen anyone prosecuted for riding a unicycle without it.
Yosef’s unicycle has been seized and he was told it would be destroyed within 14 days (long before the case came to court). It cost him £1,000. The Police have told him he will be prosecuted for driving without insurance, in which case, if he is found guilty he will be looking at a fine (usually about £800) and six points on his licence.
The Police spend endless hours prosecuting cases like this. I think most people would prefer them to spend their time on what I think most of us would regard as more serious crimes: robberies, burglaries and shoplifting.
Compare Yosef using his Unicycle to go to work to the case of Lynne Gothard – another Chiswick resident and a defence solicitor (i.e. someone who knows the law). Burglars entered her house in the night and even entered her bedroom when her and her husband were in bed.
Her son was also robbed in the streets of Chiswick; one of the robbers had a skeleton mask on his face and put a knife to his throat. What was the Police reaction on both occasions? “We were treated as complete time wasters” says Lynne.
Generally the Police will not spend time on thieves, burglars or robbers but I can assure you they will spend time on YOU if you make the slightest error. I wonder if they have been tasked specifically with prosecuting cases which will raise revenue.
I can give numerous examples of clients being prosecuted for having no insurance when they have fully comprehensive insurance. How, you may ask? People buy insurance without realising that their journey to work may not be covered.
I have had clients who have spent hundreds (or thousands) of pounds on insurance, who have been stopped by the Police and asked where they were going and they have given the honest answer: “to work”. The officer then said: “your insurance does not include commuting” and they have been prosecuted for driving without insurance.
If they had known they were committing an offence they are likely to have answered “to Tesco”, or something equally innocuous, not “to work”, so evidently they were unaware they were breaking the law, yet instead of receiving a warning they have been prosecuted.
The Police will prosecute a person that is say 50 years old with NO convictions, NO cautions and a clean driving record, but that law-abiding, hard-working person may end up with a speeding ticket on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and those speeding tickets will all say driving at 24 mph.
He has driven down that road for decades and it has always been a 30 mph speed limit. It changes, he fails to notice, and five speeding tickets arrive at once, meaning he will have totted up 12 points and liable for a six-month disqualification.
That disqualification may mean he loses his job, but as lots of people lose their jobs when they are disqualified from driving, he would not be able to make a successful case for Exceptional Hardship.
Whilst those with ‘mens rea’ – a ‘guilty mind’, who go out with the intention of being dishonest and causing harm – the burglars, the thieves, the robbers, go free, we can all rest assured that we are safe from a man who set out with no intention of breaking the law, who is going about his business on a unicycle!
Ann Crighton is a criminal barrister with her own chambers – Crighton Chambers – who specialises in motoring law.
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