The BBC reported on 28th May 2013 that hundreds “of drivers convicted for not updating their driver’s licence photo ID may have been incorrectly prosecuted“. This is based on a solicitor who “recently won a case by arguing the wrong section of the Road Traffic Act 2010 was used“.
What’s this all about?
Firstly, it should be noted that there wasn’t actually a Road Traffic Act in 2010, which isn’t a great start. Looking at an article written by Michael Pace, the solicitor involved, the position is a bit clearer.
Basically, it seems that the police have made a bit of a cock up. Have a look at the licence below (it’s not real obviously, it’s a mock up by the Guardian to show how a licence will look if the EU flag is replaced by the Union Flag).
There is a date at 4b which appears to be an expiry date. That is because it is, but it is the expiry date of the photograph, not the licence itself (this is confirmed on the back of the licence).
It is a criminal offence (under s87 Road Traffic Act 1988 not 2010) to drive without a licence. Someone who has a licence that has expired will commit this offence. There is a separate offence (under s99 Road Traffic Act 1988) to not renew your photograph. This is far less serious (a maximum fine of £1,000 and, more importantly for many people, not one that can attract penalty points).
What has been happening is that police who have stopped a driver with an expired photograph have been charging them with the offence of driving without a licence. It seems that people have been pleading guilty to this offence without realising that they have a defence (albeit one that involves them admitting a lesser criminal offence).
What happens now?
The fact that this has been in the news means that people will probably pay more attention if they are charged with this offence.
For people that have wrongly pleaded guilty, it is likely that they will have to go back to Court to sort it out. It is the sort of case that s142 Magistrates’ Court Act 1980 was designed for. This does raise various legal issues, but it is likely that those will get ignored.
People who successfully apply to the Court will have points wiped off their licence and fines returned to them. They won’t however be able to apply for compensation for any loss caused by this.
Although it may be possible to charge the driver with the correct offence, this is unlikely in most cases as there is a 6 month time limit on prosecuting such offences.
This is a good example of the problems that can be caused due to the complexities in the law. We have written recently about the problems that could be caused when legal aid is cut as is currently planned and this is a timely reminder of the importance of a lawyer – if these people had had representation, then the mistake would have been realised and the problems above averted.
These sort of offences would not have been covered by legal aid, but imagine if this were to happen in the future with more serious offences where hundreds of people had been sent to prison.