Justice by post has its pitfalls and benefits
Sunil Rupasinha, motoring offence barrister at Kent Traffic Law, provides guidance on The Single Justice Procedural Notice
This relates to Notices sent by post under a relatively new kind of Magistrates’ Court procedure. It is only used in relation to non-imprisonable offences such as speeding, failing to provide the driver’s details, driving without due care and attention, driving without insurance, using a mobile phone while driving and so on. It is not used for imprisonable offences such as drink driving or failing to stop and exchange details following an accident.
What is the procedure?
The addressee must respond within 21 days of service of the Notice stating whether a ‘Guilty’ or ‘Not Guilty’ plea is to be entered to the allegation(s). If the matters are admitted, then, in due course, the appropriate penalty will be determined by a single Justice who sits in private with a legal adviser. The Defendant will subsequently receive notification of the sentence imposed which could include an order to pay a fine, costs, a victim surcharge and the endorsement of penalty points. The aim of this procedure is to expedite the justice process whilst also saving on costs. It can be more convenient for the accused in simple cases in which it is not sought to contest the case, for example, for someone who wishes to admit an allegation of speeding expecting a relatively light punishment such as a fine and the endorsement of 3 penalty points.
How should I complete the Single Justice Procedural Notice?
You can either send the documents back in the post or, for traffic offences, complete the forms online at makeaplea.justice.gov.uk. You can plead ‘Guilty’ and ask to be sentenced in absence or in court. In either case, you have the option of setting out your mitigation in writing on the form. If you plead ‘Not Guilty’ you can expect to be provided with a date when your case will be heard in court. You will be expected to set out your defence on the form. It is very important that you read all of the documents carefully so that you understand your options. Some police forces adopt different procedures as to which documents are enclosed with the Notice. Some also send evidence such as photographs and witness statements. Consequently, you may be asked to indicate whether you require the attendance of witnesses. If you don’t require their attendance but do contest the case the evidence may be read at court without the witnesses attending which means that you would have lost your opportunity to question the witnesses at court. This could mean that the evidence against you is accepted without challenge by the court.
What are the most common pitfalls?
Sometimes people don’t reply to the Notice. If you don’t reply you may be convicted and sentenced for the offence in your absence without having any opportunity to put forward a defence or mitigation as the single justice will base his or her finding on the case papers supplied by the police. Sometimes, people just do not understand the options set out in the Notice, or, they do not understand the law applicable to the offences alleged. This can lead to people denying offences of which they are in fact, on their own account, ‘Guilty’. Conversely, people sometimes admit offences of which, based on their own account, they are in fact ‘Not Guilty’.
The forms can be misleading. I frequently receive calls from people advising me, for example, that they were speeding at well over, say, 100 mph, that they wish to plead ‘Guilty’ but opt for being sentenced in absence. However, in any case in which the Justice is of the view that the court should consider disqualification a Defendant will be called to a court hearing for consideration of a driving ban.Sentencing guidelines indicate that a ban could be appropriate in cases in which Defendants were speeding at 91mph or more (in a 70mph limit). Suppose the Defendant cannot afford to lose his or her licence. At this stage, having been notified of his court date, he may well instruct a barrister to represent him. However, if he has already completed the mitigation section (which he would have done as he had hoped to be sentenced in absence) he may well find, in due course, that the mitigation on the form is, or appears to be, inconsistent with the way in which his barrister would have preferred to present his case thereby complicating the task of avoiding a ban. Therefore, if you think you may be going to instruct a lawyer to attend court with you it may be worth considering making that instruction before, not after, the Notice is completed.
Always consider whether you have a defence to the charge or whether ‘special reasons’ might apply in which case you may be able to avoid a ban or endorsement with penalty points (even though you admit the offence). If you wish to plead ‘guilty’ but attend court for sentencing be very cautious about setting out your mitigation on the form as people sometimes set out matters which aggravate the offence(s) in the eyes of the court.
Bear in mind that if the offence(s) you are admitting take your points tally to 12 or more (for offences committed within 3 years of each other) that you will be liable to a ‘totting’ or penalty points disqualification of at least 6 months. In either this situation or one in which a single offence on its own calls for the consideration of a driving ban, such as speeding well in excess of the limit as per the example set out above, you are most likely to be called to court for consideration of a ban even in you elect to be sentenced in absence. Finally, do ensure that you read all of the papers very carefully so that you fully understand your options. Failure to do so could result in a conviction or a ban which it might have been possible to avoid.
Sunil Rupasinha has set up his own specialist motoring offence practice, Kent Traffic Law, and only represents those at risk of loss of driving licence through prosecution for motoring offences. He appears throughout London and the South East. You can learn more about him and read his other articles at www.kenttrafficlaw.co.uk