Most of us have little or no direct experience of the justice system, but we still believe it will help us when we need it. This is particularly so following a life-changing event, such as being injured as a result of someone else's negligence on the roads.
Following a road-traffic collision, there are two options through which justice can be obtained. First, injured people can make a civil claim for compensation, both for any pain and suffering and for any losses such as medical costs or a cut in income. Second, the driver can be pursued for any offence through the criminal courts.
While the first is about compensation, the second is about punishment, as well as to make others consider the potential consequences of their behaviour.
For victims, both routes to justice bring significant challenges. The professional advice given, and the outcome of any case can have significant financial and personal consequences. The justice system itself can add an element of trauma. It is often confusing and intimidating, with consumers sometimes unable to judge the quality of the professional advice they are receiving or understand - or even be aware - of the redress options available to them.
Furthermore, even where there is no dispute over liability (in other words, over whose fault it was), high-value claims can take a long time to conclude, leading to additional anxiety and frustration for claimants who are likely in a position of considerable vulnerability as a result of the reasons they are making a claim.
Significantly, victims of road traffic crime are not treated in the same way as victims of other crimes. The Code of Practice for Victims of Crime (the Victims' Code), published by the Ministry of Justice, sets out the services and a minimum standard for these that must be provided to victims of crime by organisations in England and Wales. Under the Code, victims have a number of rights, which include the following:
- the right to be given information in a way that is easy to understand and to be provided with help to be understood;
- the right to have the details of the crime recorded by the police as soon as possible after the incident; and
- the right to be provided with information when reporting the crime.
However, victims of traffic crime receive less information on the investigation and prosecution than those injured in assaults. The number of people killed and injured by law-breaking drivers is not recorded by the government, and the Crime Survey for England and Wales, which is an important means for the government to understand the true level of crime, does not include questions on being a victim of driving offences.
The Victims' Commissioner aims, among other things, to champion the Victims' Code, which defines a victim as:
- a natural person who has suffered harm, including physical, mental or emotional harm or economic loss which was directly caused by a criminal offence; or
- a close relative of a person whose death was directly caused by a criminal offence.
And yet, victims of road traffic crime do not fall within the remit of the Victims' Commissioner. This is despite the fact that an individual is far more likely to be seriously injured or killed on the roads than, say, be the victim of homicide - there were 695 victims of homicide in the year ending March 2020, whereas 31,697 people were killed or seriously injured on roads in Great Britain.
The Victims' Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird, states she wants "all victims to be treated with dignity and respect, kept informed and to get quality services to help them cope and recover". This is an admirable aim, and there appears no reason why victims of road traffic crime should not be included and provided with the information and support needed.
It is important for government, regulators, legal professionals and the wider legal sector to recognise that the justice system can aggravate the distress that a victim is already suffering. Although a strong support network exists through organisations such as Brake, RoadPeace and the Sarah Hope Line, as well as through legal professionals, more should be done to raise awareness of what is available.