§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Willetts.]10.24 pm
§ Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)
I wish to raise the subject of the tragic death of my constituent, Mrs. Margaret Morrison, and of the failure of the criminal justice system adequately to deal with those responsible for her death. The case raises wider issues about the way of dealing with cases in which criminal activity by a motorist has resulted in or contributed to the death of an innocent pedestrian.
Mrs. Morrison—a much-loved, 84-year-old grandmother—was killed in a hit-and-run accident on 13 September 1992. The accident occurred on Premier road, Sunderland, at about 8 pm on a Sunday evening. Mrs. Morrison was leaving the offside of a car parked on the inside lane of Premier road. The car lights were on and the road well-lit, and the weather was fine. She had closed the car door and was standing close against it when she was hit by an overtaking vehicle. Another vehicle some distance in front had already passed her, so there can be no suggestion that she appeared suddenly in front of the vehicle that hit her.
Mrs. Morrison was carried 30 ft on the bonnet of the car, her head hitting the windscreen. The car slowed and she fell on to the road. The vehicle was then driven away at high speed, and was later found abandoned half a mile away. Witnesses saw two men leaving the car. Before it was abandoned, the passenger was seen to throw two one-pint cans of Scorpion high-alcohol lager into a garden. He was seen also carefully to wipe the side of the car that hit Mrs. Morrison with a coat. He wiped also the driver's side of the vehicle and closed the driver's door using the coat.
The following day, one of the men—Joseph Dorward, much the worse for drink—gave himself up to the police. He was 34 years old and has a long record of criminal activity. He admitted to driving since the age of 16 without a licence. In due course, he was charged with failing to report an accident and failing to have a taxed vehicle, insurance or a driving licence. Later, following strong representations from Mrs. Morrison's family, an additional charge of careless driving was added.
Dorward's passenger, Stephen James Greener, gave himself up on 16 September—three days after the accident. He was charged with aiding and abetting failure to report an accident and with perverting the course of justice.
The case went before Sunderland magistrates on 9 March 1993. Incredibly, they elected to hear the case against Dorward—the driver—but to refer that against Greener—the passenger—to the Crown court. The case against Dorward was strong. It could not be proven that he was over the alcohol limit at the time of the accident, since he had failed to stop and could not be breathalysed. In addition to the can of Scorpion lager that he had been seen drinking in the car shortly before the accident, he admitted to having consumed another two pints of beer several hours earlier.
Dorward not only had a string of previous convictions, many of them involving vehicles, but it later emerged that on 9 November 1992—two months after he killed Mrs. 1106 Morrison and while awaiting trial for that offence—he was again arrested and charged with driving without insurance, a licence or MOT certificate, and having a defective tyre. I submit that Dorward should have been tried for those further offences at the same time as he was tried for the offences arising from Mrs. Morrison's death. That would have enabled the magistrates to place in proper context any expression of regret made on Mr. Dorward's behalf and to sentence him accordingly. In fact, however, neither the Crown Prosecution Service nor the magistrates appeared to have been aware that Dorward was continuing to commit similar offences while on bail for the death of Mrs. Morrison. That became clear only when her son spotted a newspaper report giving details of Dorward's later conviction.
Dorward was fined £600 for the offences involving the death of Mrs. Morrison, payable at £3 a week and suspended until after he had finished paying—at the same rate—fines for a string of previous offences. In addition, he was banned from driving for 12 months. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Morrison's family were outraged, and so were many people in Sunderland. They take the view that, in the circumstances, the life of that innocent old lady should have been worth more than £3 a week.
As for Mr. Greener, he, in due course, appeared before His Honour Judge Capstick at Newcastle Crown court. Like Mr. Dorward, he had many previous convictions, including one for failing to stop after an accident. He was sentenced to 240 hours community service. Both the judge and Mr. Greener's counsel remarked that, as the driver of the car had not been sent to prison, it would not be right to imprison his accomplice, although a conviction for perverting the course of justice would normally result in imprisonment. The judge remarked that Mr. Dorward had been "lucky" to receive the sentence that he did. Counsel for Greener, pleading with the judge not to send his client to gaol, remarked on the "rather extraordinary disparity" that would arise between a sentence of custody on Greener and a fine already imposed on the driver.A member of the public,he said,looking at this matter and hearing of the consequences … would say it was a rather bizarre state of affairs … if the passenger loses his liberty whereas the person who …was directly responsible for killing the old lady …receives only a financial penalty. Such a marked disparity offends the common view of what justice is all about.Indeed it does. In my view, the handling of the whole case offends the common view of what justice is all about, and I wish that I could convey the widespread sense of outrage in Sunderland that the case has provoked. I believe that it has been grievously mishandled by the CPS, and I have sought to obtain from the Director of Public Prosecutions an admission that that is so, but I regret that I have not been successful.
First, I should be grateful to know why, given the circumstances—I have given the Solicitor-General advance notice of the questions that I intend to ask, in the hope of receiving a substantive reply—Mr. Dorward was not charged with a more serious offence, such as manslaughter, with dangerous, reckless or careless driving as a fallback? Why, indeed, could he not have been charged, with Mr. Greener, with perverting the course of justice? That at least would have got him to the Crown court. Had he been charged with a more serious offence, I believe that there was a realistic prospect that a jury 1107 would have convicted. I remind the Solicitor-General that it was only after the intervention of Mrs. Morrison's family that the charge of careless driving was added in the first place.
§ Mr. Bill Etherington (Sunderland, North)
I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining an Adjournment debate on this very sad subject.
My hon. Friend will be as aware as I am, as we both represent the same city, that, in general, the incidence of car crimes in Sunderland is higher than anywhere else in mainland Britain—even Belfast. Does he not think that the very good efforts being made by the police to try to improve the position are grievously undermined by the case that he is describing tonight?
§ Mr. Mullin
I agree. There is no criticism of the police involved. They did everything that one would expect of them. The criticism and responsibility for this fiasco lies entirely with the northern branch of the CPS.
Secondly, why did the Crown allow the driver to be dealt with by magistrates while the passenger, who after all was only an accomplice, was sent for trial at Crown court? I am sure that there is an explanation that makes perfect sense to lawyers, but it will make none at all to those of us who are not lawyers.
Thirdly, I invite the Solicitor-General to agree that a fine of £600, payable at £3 a week, suspended until fines for previous offences have been paid, is an inappropriate sentence for an offence of this kind, particularly as the defendant, by his own admission, had been driving without a licence since the age of 16. Let me also put it to the Solicitor-General that a 12-month driving ban only adds insult to injury.
Fourthly, I would like to know why no member of the Crown Prosecution Service noticed that, within two months of killing Mrs. Morrison and long before he came to trial, Mr. Dorward was again arrested without insurance or tax. As I said earlier, if someone had noticed perhaps that offence could have been dealt with at the same time, and Mr. Dorward's evident lack of remorse could have been reflected in his sentence.
Fifthly, I would like to know whether Mr. Dorward has yet commenced paying the fine imposed on him for killing Mrs. Morrison. We should remember that more than two years have now passed. Sixthly, I seek an acknowledgment that the CPS handled the case badly, an apology to Mrs. Morrison's family and an undertaking that some lessons will be learnt for the future. I have conducted a lengthy correspondence with the CPS, which has so far exhibited a steely determination to concede nothing and to learn nothing from the mishandling of the case.
It has long seemed to me that cases involving death during the misuse of motor vehicles are not taken seriously enough by either the CPS or the courts. In a recent case—not in Sunderland—a widow who was unable to persuade the CPS to prosecute the person responsible for her husband's death successfully initiated a private prosecution. It seems to me axiomatic that if a person drives a car without a licence and kills or seriously injures someone, a custodial sentence should follow; the same applies to a person who drinks and drives, whether or not it can be proved that drink was responsible for the 1108 accident. I believe that the CPS should be much more ready to apply a manslaughter charge in cases of this sort, and I am sure that juries would be willing to convict.
Finally, I pay tribute to Mrs. Morrison's sons, David and John, who have been persistent but dignified in their pursuit of justice for their mother—and not only for their mother. They believe that, given Mr. Dorward's long record of criminal activity—much of it involving motor vehicles—there is every possibility that sooner or later he will kill or injure someone else. If that happened, those who failed to deal with him seriously on this occasion would bear some responsibility.
§ The Solicitor-General (Sir Derek Spencer)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) on raising an important topic. Let me say at once that I share his feelings of sorrow and sympathy over the tragic circumstances of Mrs. Morrison's death, and share the grief of her family. Such cases, however, must be dealt with not on the basis of sorrow or grief, but according to the law of the land. The hon. Gentleman has a very distinguished record in remorselessly ensuring, and striving to ensure, that the law of the land is upheld. I hope to demonstrate to him that in this case the Crown Prosecution Service does not deserve brickbats, but acted properly, professionally, independently and in accordance with the law of the land.
The selection of the charges that are appropriate when a driver kills another person on the road is too often surrounded by myth, mystery, misunderstanding and ignorance, particularly when the criminal culpability of the driver falls to be considered. Let me demonstrate to the hon. Gentleman how the CPS approaches such cases as a matter of principle, leaving this particular case on one side for a moment.
The case starts in the police station, with the custody officers selecting the appropriate charge. In other circumstances, they may adopt a procedure that does not involve charge. A big difference may exist in the police's perception of a case, in the hurly-burly of the custody suite, and the lawyer's perception of it several weeks later, when all the evidence has been added together. If the hon. Gentleman has been to his local police station—if he has not, I invite him to do so—he will have seen the circumstances in which custody officers have to act.
No criticism can be made of either the police or the CPS if the initial preferred charges are varied, whether they be made more or less serious. They must always march in step with the evidence. The first principle that is applied—and the police try to apply it as well—is that the charge must reflect the seriousness of the offending; secondly, it must give the courts adequate sentencing power; and thirdly, it must enable the case to be presented in a clear and concise way without any diversions or red herrings. There must be a realistic prospect of conviction. Provided that test is satisfied, a prosecution must be in the public interest. In the interest of justice, it is vital that questions are approached in that order. We cannot approach cases in an emotional spasm, or on the basis that the defendant is a scallywag, and the book should be thrown at him.
§ Mr. Mullin
There is no need to waste a great deal of time on this aspect. I understand and accept that one must proceed on the basis of the evidence. I have read the 1109 evidence and all of the statements. I have the file and the conclusions that I draw, rightly or wrongly, are based on that.
§ The Solicitor-General
I follow the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's argument. I shall come to the evidence in a moment, but I want to set it in the proper background.
Although the hon. Gentleman may be aware of how we approach these things, many people are not. For example, it would be wrong to say that, just because someone has been killed by a driver on the road, the appropriate charge is causing death by dangerous driving. To take an extreme case, a person may have stepped out into the road without warning. It may be pitch black. The person may be dressed in very dark clothes and, therefore, may be difficult to see.
§ The Solicitor-General
I accept that, but I have a much wider point to make than the narrow one raised by the hon. Gentleman. Let me try to give him some satisfaction in applying those principles to driving cases in general, and to this case in particular. When a driver, as a result of his driving, causes someone's death on the road, three possible charges can be preferred, as the hon. Gentleman has said. The first is manslaughter—he would like that to be preferred more often; the second is causing death by dangerous driving; and the third is driving without due care and attention.
In deciding which is the appropriate charge, the prosecution must concentrate on the evidence. It must lay aside feelings of animus towards the defendant and his character. It must concentrate just on the evidence. II, out of sympathy for a victim, emotions run away with the lawyer and he prefers a charge that is not backed tip by the evidence, it will result only in an acquittal of the person who should be convicted of a lesser charge.
Let us consider the three options. The first is manslaughter, in which case the prosecution has to prove recklessness. With respect to the hon. Gentleman, the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords disagreed with him in the cases of Seymour and Adomako as to the suitability of preferring manslaughter in this sort of case. They said that manslaughter is appropriate only in the most grave cases where it can be established that the driving was not only far below the required standard but reckless. There are in the casebooks instances of a vehicle being used as a weapon and deliberately driven at someone or of it being driven very close to someone to give him the fright of his life but, owing to a misjudgment, he has been struck and killed. In such cases, manslaughter would be an appropriate charge. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that such facts are a million light years away from the case that we are debating.
The second option is the charge of causing death by dangerous driving. As recently as 1991, the House visited this offence and redefined it in terms which, it was intended, should mirror the general public's idea of justice. The Road Traffic Act 1991 was passed to amend the existing law following a report by Professor North, now the vice-chancellor of Oxford university. As a result of that change, causing death by dangerous driving is deemed to have occurred where the driving falls far below—I stress the words "far below"—what would be expected of a competent, careful driver, where it would be obvious to a careful and competent driver that driving 1110 in that way would be dangerous and where it, in fact, caused death. In those circumstances, causing death by dangerous driving is the result and the proper charge.
The cases covered by that charge are infinitely various and each turns on its own facts. The worst cases involve racing or competitive driving, gross disregard of speed limits and prevailing road conditions or overtaking when it was perfectly obvious that it was dangerous to do so and the corner was well signposted, for example.
The third option is driving without due care and attention. In this case, the ingredients are that the driver has departed from the standards of a competent and careful driver but the driving is not so bad as to be viewed as far below that standard. In the case raised by the hon. Gentleman, there were in law only two rational options—causing death by dangerous driving or careless driving.
§ The Solicitor-General
I shall give way in a moment but I want to follow the thread of the argument.
The Crown Prosecution Service was set up in 1986. The fact that it is sometimes gratuitously attacked by critics who do not know the full facts is rather disappointing. It is sometimes attacked for no good reason at all. We must remember that the CPS comprises 2,200 professionally qualified lawyers who are striving to do their professional best. They are supported by 4,400 support staff. Each year, they conduct 1.4 million cases the length and breadth of the country. It is perhaps not surprising that there is sometimes criticism somewhere along the line, given the total number of cases. However, it behoves critics to examine the facts carefully and not use emotive language about incompetence or disgraceful behaviour without great deliberation.
§ Mr. Mullin
What about perverting the course of justice as a possible way of getting the case into the Crown court? The man was seen speeding and he and his passenger were seen drinking while the car was going along.
§ The Solicitor-General
The facts of the case are substantially as given by the hon. Gentleman, but as the passenger—the deceased—got out, she was overtaken by the driver of a Vauxhall, which was immediately behind, and the driver moved over, exposing her to the path of the defendant. Until then, Dorward's view of the pedestrian had been obscured by the Vauxhall. He later admitted that he had been talking with his passenger and failed to see the lady until the very last moment. She was struck and tragically died of her injuries. Disgracefully, Dorward drove off and his passenger acted as the hon. Gentleman said.
The question was, how culpable was his driving at the time and what was the quality of it? After considering all, the facts, careless driving was selected as the appropriate charge—in my view, rightly. I have 30 years' experience, in the courts. Until my appointment in April 1992 I spent virtually every day of my life in the courts.
Such an offence is triable only summarily, so once it was selected there was no way in which Mr. Dorward could be tried on indictment. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the appropriate sentence is a matter for the 1111 independent court. It would be wrong of me as a law officer to cast aspersions on the magistrates in his locality, who must remain free from political influence.
The hon. Gentleman asks, "What about perverting the course of justice?" There was no evidence that the driver, Dorward, was involved in perverting the course of justice. That was done by the passenger. It would be stretching the law to breaking point to suggest that, in every case where a driver drives off in such an instance and does nothing more, he has perverted the course of justice, especially when, as this defendant did, he goes to the police station, surrenders and tells the police what he has done. The passenger was charged with perverting the course of justice and that offence is triable only on indictment, so it had to be sent to the Crown court, where it was dealt with by his Honour Judge Capstick, an extremely experienced judge who has sat for many years at the Old Bailey as well as in the north of England.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the other offences that came to light later. The CPS cannot be criticised for not knowing about that, as they took place later and the proceedings were initiated by the police by a special summary procedure that involves serving papers on the defendant. By the time the CPS knew about that case, sentence had been passed. It is not for me to say whether the outcome would have been much more serious for Dorward had the magistrates known about the second 1112 offence. Given the formidable list of Dorward's previous convictions, it is most unlikely that, had the magistrates been made aware that other offences had been committed shortly after the offence in question, it would have made a great difference.
There can be no criticism of the CPS for failing to spot that case among the hundreds of others with which it must deal. The CPS recognises that cases that involve the death of a victim cause anguish. Therefore, there is in place a procedure whereby a CPS lawyer will see relatives and friends of the deceased to explain the procedure. That was done in this case. The hon. Gentleman asked me to stigmatise the CPS's behaviour and agree that the case was grievously mishandled. I fear that I cannot join him in criticising the CPS in that way. I am satisfied that the high standards that it sets itself in witness care were fully complied with in this case.
§ Mr. Mullin
That was an extremely complacent analysis of the case.
I entirely accept that one must proceed on the basis of the evidence, but statements in the file record how the driver was seen speeding and making his brakes screech. He and the passenger were seen swigging strong alcohol shortly before the accident. As I mentioned, the driver failed to stop. The Solicitor-General said that he gave himself up a day or so later, but—
§ The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
§ Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Eleven o'clock.