R v Lawrence

English Criminal Law

R v Lawrence
Image: ‘Ducati Scrambler Cafe Racer’ by Unknown Artist

Reckless driving, while contextually similar to the criminal charge of recklessness, was at the time of this case, still unclear in terms of the mens rea of drivers brought to trial. Unfortunately for the victim’s family, this uncertainty resulted in an acquittal from the offence on grounds of a confused and thereby ineffective, jury.

In 1979, a couple took a visit to their local off-licence in order to purchase some soft drinks for their children. Parking opposite the shop, the mother entered the store, before standing at the kerbside in preparation for crossing back over the road. Moments after blowing her husband a kiss, the victim stepped into the road before being struck by one of two motorcycles, dying instantly, while being carried at speed on the front of the driver’s vehicle.

Upon indictment, the defendant was convicted by a majority jury of reckless driving under s.1 of the Road Traffic Act 1972. There were also questions raised at the time around the exact speed at which the motorcycle was travelling, with opinions ranging from 30 -80mph, resulting in a lengthy trial, and one in which despite an absolute conviction, left the jury seeking clarification as to exactly what reckless driving required, and whether there was a need to appreciate the mindset of the defendant at the time both before, and during, the time of the offence.

Upon appeal, the Court quashed the conviction upon grounds that where uniform agreement could not be found as to how reckless driving existed under the 1972 Act, there could be no established verdict beyond any reasonable doubt. In response, the regional Chief Constable appealed on behalf of the Crown to the House of Lords, while trying to find agreement as to what s.1 of the Road Traffic Act 1972 truly meant.

Referring to the meaning of recklessness as defined by R v Murphy, the courts recognised that:

“A driver is guilty of driving recklessly if he deliberately disregards the obligation to drive with due care and attention or is indifferent as to whether or not he does so and thereby creates a risk of an accident which a driver driving with due care and attention would not create.”

However, in cases such as R v Caldwell, the jury were required to consider not only the actus reus (actions) of the accused, but the mens rea (mindset) prior to the act of arson duly charged. This by convention, had not been something applied during road traffic accidents, therefore the jury in this trial were left confused as to whether an objective evaluation was in itself sufficient, or whether subjective consideration was needed to fully contain the origin of recklessness, as opposed to arguments over which speed the defendant was travelling when the offence occurred.

Though a comprehensive chronology of reckless driving within the road traffic offences, the House held that there needed to be two elements to a conviction of recklessness, namely:

(i) “[T]hat the defendant was in fact driving the vehicle in such a manner as to create an obvious and serious risk of causing physical injury to some other person who might happen to be using the road or of doing substantial damage to property…”

And:

(ii) “[T]hat in driving in that manner the defendant did so without having given any thought to the possibility of there being any such risk or, having recognised that there was some risk involved, had nonetheless gone on to take it.”

Therefore it was left to the jury to determine if, as hypothetical road users themselves, they felt that a defendant did knowingly choose to take charge of a vehicle with the intention to cause harm, as opposed to harm being caused by means beyond their control. This by effect, also rendered the Murphy direction null and void, while paving the way clear for expeditious trials under similar circumstances.

Key Citations

“[I]t is a truism to say that justice delayed is justice denied. But it is not merely the anxiety and uncertainty in the life of the accused, whether on bail or remand, which are affected. Where there is delay the whole quality of justice deteriorates.”

“The purpose of a direction to a jury is not best achieved by a disquisition on jurisprudence or philosophy or a universally applicable circular tour round the area of law affected by the case.”

“A direction to a jury should be custom built to make the jury understand their task in relation to a particular case. Of course it must include references to the burden of proof and the respective roles of jury and judge. But it should also include a succinct but accurate summary of the issues of fact as to which a decision is required, a correct but concise summary of the evidence and arguments on both sides, and a correct statement of the inferences which the jury are entitled to draw from their particular conclusions about the primary facts.”

Author: Neil Egan-Ronayne

Author, publisher and foodie...

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