Some cases are pure tragedy for all concerned. As anyone who has ever driven a car knows, it is easy to come within a hairsbreadth of an accident. An example of what can happen is given by the case of Ichhpal Bharma, who was sentenced on 18th January to a £35 fine (as well as costs) and received 3 points on his licence for his role in an accident last June that lead to the death of Tom Ridgeway.
Mr Bharma pleaded guilty and the details are not as clear as they would be after a trial. Given that the sentence was passed by the Magistrates’ Court, it is harder to get the details.
What we do know is that Mr Bharma, a licensed taxi driver, was driving along a road in Birmingham. There was a collision with Mr Ridgeway (who was on his bike) which lead to him being flung on to the bonnet of Mr Bharma’s car which crashed shortly after.
Whilst this lead to Mr Ridgeway’s death, it was apparently not possible to say how the accident occurred, or what the cause of Mr Ridgeway’s death was. As a consequence, Mr Bharma was charged only with careless driving (contrary to s3 Road Traffic Act 1988).
Someone drives carelessly if their driving is without ‘due care or attention’ (ie, their driving falls below what would be expected of a competent and careful driver, for example, overtaking on the inside), or without reasonable consideration for other road users (for example, driving with undipped headlights).
This is a summary only offence, and one that is non-imprisonable (the maximum sentence is disqualification and a Level 5 fine). There are Magistrates’ Court sentencing guidelines that the Court would have considered (p117). Given the fine and the points imposed, it would seem that is was categorised as the least serious form of offending (momentary lapse of concentration or misjudgment).
The fact that someone dies is a feature that would normally aggravate the sentence. There is a separate (and more serious – maximum penalty 5 years) offence of causing death by careless driving. This requires proof of the offence of careless driving (present in this case as there was a guilty plea) and that the driving caused the death. This could not be charged in this case as it could not be established that the careless driving was the cause of death.
On the face of it, a fine and points on the licence is a derisory penalty when someone died. Hopefully, the above goes some way to explaining how the sentence was arrived at. Here, it seems that the case was about as close as you can get to an accident, rather than an incident that should attract criminal liability. Mr Bharma did not intend the death, he was not reckless in relation to the death and was probably guilt-ridden by the death. This is a good example of the difficult issues that the criminal law can throw up. It seems that the Court balanced the interests correctly.
There will be an inquest later this year where fuller details of the incident may come out.