Public perceptions of sentencing for death by driving offences explored in new research report

The Scottish Sentencing Council has today published research into public perceptions of sentencing for causing death by driving offences in Scotland.

Members of the public, including relatives of victims of such offences, took part in the research, which was carried out by ScotCen Social Research on behalf of the Council. It examines public understanding of and attitudes to sentencing for death by driving offences as well as experiences and views of the justice system.

Discussions explored awareness of the situations involved in these offences, knowledge and views of the factors influencing sentencing and perceptions of the purpose of sentencing.

Members of the public also worked through a scenario to give a sentence for an offence, exploring what factors influenced their sentence selection and whether any of their views changed after the exercise.

Participants considered that proportionality was of very high importance when sentencing these offences and, in the main, thought that sentences should increase in line with the culpability, or blameworthiness, of the offender. In addition, participants felt that certain factors should carry more weight than others, including the seriousness of the offence and the risk-of reoffending.

Participants did not always have a clear understanding of the offences or on sentencing generally. Although there was a general perception that sentencing for death by driving offences is inconsistent and does not meet expectations, some changed their views after completing a sentencing exercise, citing the many factors that need to be considered. 

Indeed there was a wide range of views expressed on how these offences are, and should be, sentenced. For example, while it was thought that prison should be an available option for all death by driving offences, some thought it only appropriate in the most serious offences and there were views that community-based sentences were more likely to support rehabilitation.

Sentencing for these offences is particularly complex and challenging, in part because the culpability, or blameworthiness, of the driver can sometimes be very low in comparison with the great harm caused. The range of views expressed during the research reflects some of the difficulties involved in the sentencing of these cases, which the introduction of a guideline is intended to alleviate.

The experiences of family members of victims of death by driving offences were also explored. There were a number of suggestions for areas in which criminal justice processes might be improved, and the Council will give consideration to those suggestions within its responsibilities. For matters outwith its remit the Council will ensure these views are passed on to the responsible bodies.

David Harvie, Chair of the Council’s Death by Driving Committee “Death by driving offences are some of the most serious cases which come before the courts and are of significant public interest. This research is an important step towards the development of the Council’s guideline on sentencing for these offences.

“We are grateful to those who gave their time to participate in this study and in particular for the insights shared by those who have lost loved ones in such tragic circumstances.

“The guideline is intended to assist sentencers in the difficult task of sentencing for these offences and to provide greater transparency to the public.

“We will consider carefully the findings of this research, and the views expressed, in our development of a guideline on death by driving offences and in our wider work to improve awareness and understanding of sentencing.” 

 

Key findings

  • Participants did not generally have a clear understanding of death by driving offences and the difference between dangerous and careless driving was not always well understood.
  • There was a lack of awareness of the full extent of the factors taken into account in the sentencing of these offences with some participants changing their views on sentencing after considering the full range of factors which might be involved. 
  • Overall, participants felt that their expectations of sentencing for death by driving offences were not met. Charge reductions and guilty plea discounts among other things were cited as contributing to this sense of leniency. Some, family members in particular, were frustrated by the fact that the maximum sentence is unused.
  • Although participants recognised the need to take into account the particular circumstances of the case, sentencing was perceived as inconsistent and requiring greater transparency. It was thought that sentencing guidelines could assist with improving both consistency and transparency, but that guidelines should be flexible to allow for all the circumstances to be taken into account. Proportionality was thought to be of very high importance when sentencing these offences and it was generally thought that sentences should increase in line with the culpability of the offender.
  • Participants felt certain factors should carry more weight than others, including the seriousness of the offence and the risk-of reoffending.
  • Views on prison as a sentence for these offences were mixed. There was agreement that prison should be an option for all death by driving offences, but mixed views on whether or not all of them should necessarily attract a prison sentence. Some thought prison appropriate only for the most serious of these offences; some viewed community-based sentences as more likely to result in rehabilitation; and some thought that the level of blame might not always be high enough to warrant imprisonment.
  • The most serious offences were considered to be those where people knowingly behave outside the law. For example when driving dangerously, under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or while disqualified. Careless driving was seen as less serious than the other offences. 
  • Family members of victims said they would like to see improvements in communication around the reasons for sentencing decisions and the range of support available to them, as well as the opportunity to receive an apology from the offender. Improved communications would assist with their understanding of the process and provide clarity on the reasons for the decision made in the case.

 

 

 

Notes 

  1. The report: Public perceptions of sentencing in Scotland Qualitative research exploring causing death by driving offences was published on 18 February 2021 and is the first-such in depth qualitative research of its kind.

 

  1. In total, 30 people took part in a focus group or interview in March and April 2019. Eighteen people took part in three public focus groups. They were aged between 23 to 77 years. Eight interviews were conducted with 12 family members of victims (parents, siblings and a cousin) from across Scotland.

 

  1. The research was carried out by ScotCen Social Research on behalf of the Sentencing Council for Scotland. Its authors are Susan Reid, Hannah Biggs, Kaushi Attygalle, Konstantina Vosnaki (ScotCen) Dr Rachel McPherson (University of Glasgow) and Professor Cyrus Tata (Strathclyde Centre for Law, Crime & Justice, Law, School, University of Strathclyde.

 

  1. The Scottish Sentencing Council is currently developing a guideline on sentencing for causing death by driving offences. It is intended that this will be the Council’s first offence guideline after the “Principles and purposes of sentencing” guideline which came into force on 26 November 2018, and “The sentencing process” and “Sentencing young people” both of which are currently being finalised ahead of submission to the High Court for approval later this year.

     
  2. Research published by the Council includes  exploration of public attitudes to death by driving offences carried out by Ipsos MORI as part of a 2019 report on its survey on perceptions of sentencing and a 2018 literature review examining sentencing of these offences in Scotland and in other jurisdictions.

 

  1. Penalties for causing death by driving offences are set out in the Road Traffic Act 1988 and are reserved to the UK Government. The maximum penalty for death by dangerous driving is 14 years’ imprisonment, with a minimum disqualification period of 2 years and a compulsory re-test. The maximum penalty for causing death by careless or inconsiderate driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs is 14 years’ imprisonment, with a minimum disqualification period of two years and a compulsory extended re-test. For death by careless or inconsiderate driving, the maximum penalty is five years’ imprisonment, with a minimum disqualification period of 12 months.

 

  1. For causing death by driving whilst unlicensed or uninsured the maximum penalty is 2 years’ imprisonment with a minimum disqualification period of 12 months. For causing death by driving whilst disqualified it is 10 years’ imprisonment with a minimum disqualification period of 2 years and a compulsory extended re-test.

 

  1. The UK Government has announced its intention to increase the maximum penalty for drivers who cause death by dangerous driving or driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs from 14 years’ imprisonment to life imprisonment.