An Open Letter To The British Judicial System – By Stewart Pratt

by Bez 48

First published on www.stewartpratt.com

Dear British Judicial System,

I write to you as a cyclist, a motorist and a pedestrian. As someone’s son and as someone’s father. As someone who seeks to go about his daily business in reasonable safety, and as someone who has no greater or lesser claim to that desire than any other in this land over which you preside, nor any greater or lesser right to it.

You fail me.

You fail me, and you fail others, because you are not there to protect us. This is your primary purpose: a duty of care, a memorandum of understanding that affords safety and equality to us.

Specifically, you fail us on the road. Here, there is no memorandum of understanding. There is no affordance of safety. And, most palpably of all, there is no equality.

This week you have provided three stark examples of your failure.

Firstly, there is the prominent case of Mary Bowers.

Ms Bowers was waiting in an advanced stop area when a lorry driven by Petre Beiu set off. Beiu had failed to observe the cycle lane and had failed to observe Ms Bowers despite her being visible through his windscreen for at least 10 seconds. He was using a telephone at the time, and was using it to give directions to a colleague who was also driving. He drove his lorry over Ms Bowers, had to be alerted by others to the fact, and failed to stop his vehicle properly. Upon being questioned by the police, he lied to try to cover his own back, denying his use of the telephone. He has admitted other offences.

The punishment for this is a £2700 fine and an 8 month ban.

I should point out, my dear Judicial System, that were I to be so abhorrently incompetent as to have committed that offence, such a sentence would have little impact on my life. The fine is not a punitive amount. The ban, whilst clearly an issue for a professional driver, would be inconsequential to me. I have a wife who can drive, and I can buy train tickets.

Therefore the message that you send to me, and millions of others in similar positions, is that I can destroy someone’s life, a life saved only by the country’s exceptional medical care, and I can destroy the lives of all who are close to them, with entirely negligible consequences to myself.

Of course, had Ms Bowers died, you would have been empowered to do a little more. But you chose to conduct sentencing while she exists in some appalling limbo. And you, the British Judicial System, make a huge distinction between someone whose actions result in death, and someone whose actions result in someone being in a long-term coma with no quality of life and surely a desperate prognosis; a state that some, indeed apparently Ms Bowers’ own father, might be inclined to argue as a state worse than death.

The difference is but a few critical moments around the arrival of paramedics. The difference is not in the actions, the stupidity, the incompetence, the flouting of the law, the deception of the investigating officers, the sheer danger presented to others. You choose not to differentiate so much on these criteria as you do on the actions of the medical staff, out of the hands of both the offender and the victim.

Let us, then, consider your second example of the week.

Yesterday, Wlodzimierz Umaniec was jailed for two years for defacing a Mark Rothko painting. The cost of repairing the damage is estimated at £200,000.

Now, British Judicial System, it should be noted that the damage done here is repairable. Expensive it may be, but it is repairable.

Moreover, it is damage to property, specifically a piece of modern art. There are four consequences: firstly the repair cost, secondly the inconvenience to the public of the work being removed during the repair, thirdly a potential loss of value of the original work, and fourthly some potential upset caused to some people. I would contend, especially given that a common purpose of modern art is to challenge and offend, that the non-financial aspects of this action are inconsequential in comparison to those suffered by Ms Bowers and her friends and family. Leaving us with financial implications only.

It seems strange that the action which has such devastating and irreparable physical and emotional consequences is punished by a derisory fine, whilst that with purely financial consequences is punished by a custodial sentence almost reminiscent of that issued to Pussy Riot earlier in the year.

Yet, my dear System, if this stark disparity in justice was not a sufficiently damning illustration of your lack of fitness for purpose, there is more.

The third example of the week is the case of Sam Harding, who was proceeding in a cycle lane when Kenan Aydogdu, having parked his car, opened his door directly into his path. Mr Harding was flung onto the road, then to be run over by the bus which was following him. He died.

You allowed Aydogdu to walk free. His actions were without legal consequence. This is, depressingly, nothing less than we would expect of you. Had someone accidentally dropped a piano from a bridge into the path of a car, my God, we would expect you to have acted decisively. But in this case, the driver is the party making the mistake, not the one suffering the consequences.

Yet, all of the above merely brings me to the point of my letter to you.

The point of my letter is that you overlook the nature of your role. Your role is to provide security, safety and protection. Even were you capable of acting in an egalitarian manner, your powers cannot provide any security for vulnerable road users.

You see, you miss things.

You miss the fact that a haulage company appears to be comfortable with their drivers operating telephones whilst driving, of drivers giving and receiving directions instead of stopping to consult a map or program a satnav.

You miss the fact that a court saw fit to – apparently unflinchingly – allow the statement that “there was nothing the driver of the 153 bus could have done to avoid running over Mr Harding“, when quite clearly there was: he could have left sufficient distance to stop. What should be expected of a bus if a cat runs into a cyclist’s path? (I should add that this happened to me only last week and quite clearly I was fortunate not to have a bus immediately behind me.) The implication is that it is quite acceptable to drive straight over them.

We all know that when one car crashes into the back of another, the insurance battle will not be drawn-out: in almost all cases it is the rearmost vehicle’s fault; they had been required to leave sufficient space.

Yet you allow this not to apply to cyclists. You fail to see bicycles as vehicles and protect the people using them to the same degree that those in motorised vehicles are protected. You fail to apply the rules of the road to others around them.

Whilst society and the media berate cyclists en masse because of a minority who irresponsibly fail to adhere to some rules, both are markedly unfazed by drivers of motorised vehicles who do the same.

You display this same hypocrisy – and you display it repeatedly and predictably, even with persistent offenders – and this is not becoming of an entity which should stand for protection and equality.

You have, apparently, no powers – and certainly no appetite – for addressing the real issues here.

There is no corporate manslaughter charge offered against a haulage company whose drivers exceed regulated shift times and use telephones in the cab.

There is no investigation into a bus company whose drivers roll over the vehicle in front.

There is barely a potent consequence for any driver, professional or otherwise, whose driving is littered with carelessness and lack of diligence and responsibility. Many thousands of drivers continue to talk on phones whilst driving, many thousands fail to adhere to all sorts of standards which should be expected of them, and you can do nothing. Even when the same drivers appear in court time and again for serious offences, you can do nothing.

Need I remind you that last year, when Peter Stubbs was killed by Charlie Willbourne, you gave no verdict. The driver protested that she was blinded by the sun, yet you deemed that wilfully driving into invisible space was entirely acceptable. You sent the message that driving a car into someone and causing their death was not something to which you would respond.

This year you went further. When Elizabeth Brown was killed by Daniel Mackay, you saw fit not only to absolve him of blame, but to actually make his incompetence his defence. The case, as far as could be gleaned from the reports, hinged around the fact that “another van had suddenly swerved in front of him, blocking his view until it was too late”. In other words, it was the fact that he was driving too closely to the vehicle in front that allowed the jury to excuse him for not having seen Miss Brown.

There are numerous other examples, my dear System. You have the records.

Basic standards of care and diligence on the road are pandemically absent from the driving population.

The public tolerates this. The media ignores it. Professions institutionalise it. And you, in the most literal sense, legitimise it.

I therefore ask you to take on this challenge. Start addressing this cancer of dangerous driving – and let’s make no mistake, legalese aside, carelessness is dangerous when you’re in charge of a ton or more of metal.

I hope you can change to address these stark shortcomings. I believe I won’t be the last to make this request.

http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/public/cyclesafety/article3626604.ece

Comments (48)

  1. Well said, but what chance of anyone listening?

  2. Perhaps a written copy to the Times/Telegraph/Guardian might get the notice of the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice. I doubt it, but it stands a better chance than an entry on a blog.

  3. It trust it has been sent to all the broadsheets. Some of them might be listening.

  4. …perhaps a national newspaper who ran a “make our roads safer for cyclists” campaign?

  5. Nicely Written Bez – But I think you missed a point . There’s a striking similarity between the Mark Rothko painting and Ms Bowers.
    Both of them are unique and irreplaceable, and will have bought joy to peoples lives, and while the Rothko can only sit there inanimately, who knows what Mary could have done given the chance ? Great paintings , the cure for cancer produced a prodigy of her own …

  6. +1.

    as above, please send to all broadsheets, and all cabinet members, the CTC, aww hell you know who, and you probably have… it is an old argument but many of us, myself included get so possessed with rage we don’t articulate it very well. You have , please share that fact with anyone who will listen.

  7. Well I mulled this over a bit and since my MP is making hay on the Tour de France success of Yorkshire, I have emailed him suggesting he act to ensure a legacy from Yorkshire2014 for all UK cyclists.

    seemed like the sort of language these guys go for. fingers crossed.

  8. *applause*

    Let’s make this viral.

  9. Perhaps we could also help as well by sending the link to the original article (http://www.stewartpratt.com/?p=580) to our representatives in parliament.
    If they get bombarded enough by them perhaps they may take notice?

  10. For what it’s worth, I gave a little thought to what steps could be taken to actually make a difference in light of these and other events.

    http://www.stewartpratt.com/?p=593

    I’m no lawyer. Just a bloke on the road who tries to be responsible. So I’m curious to know whether people think I’m talking sense.

  11. Link put onto Facebook + emailed my MP with the message below

    Dear Jim,

    As part of your support for EDM 679, I’d be interested in your thoughts about the blog below.

    http://singletrackworld.com/2012/12/an-open-letter-to-the-british-judicial-system-by-stewart-pratt/

    I note that ‘strengthening road traffic law’ is one element of EDM 679. But does this mean that drivers that injure and kill will fully face the implications of their actions and be properly prevented from repeating themselves?

    Anecdotal experience is that I come close to getting knocked off by a car or van about twice per ride despite riding with 6 lights at night or on low light days and bright colours/hi-viz at all times. Yet as I don’t ride with a helmet camera I can do nothing to bring the perpetrator to the attention of the police and the drivers go unpunished time and time again…

    Many thanks,

  12. Great stuff. Well done. Just tweeted and FB’d.

  13. My Twitter, Facebook & G+ accounts all sit there dormant, but I’ve used them all to share this excellent letter. I just hope it gets seen and acted upon by the right people.

  14. If anyone is writing to their MP (please do, because this is about statutory changes) then please also ask them to sign Early Day Motion 679 if they haven’t already done so (you can check on the following link) and thank them if they have.

    http://www.parliament.uk/edm/2012-13/679

    If you agree with the statute changes that I’ve suggested in the second linked article then by all means link to it or copy, tweak or do whatever with the ideas; and if you don’t agree then please think of at least one concrete suggestion. Proposing solutions is more constructive than simply protesting the status quo.

  15. I have written to my mp and copied the entire letter

  16. Emailed my MP with all relavent links and told him to pull his finger out and sign up.

  17. Bez, heart-felt and heart-wrenching. Overlong but the subject is a serious one so I forgive you 😉

    My suggestion, beyond the excellent ones already made – put it on a petition. UK Gov site has a page for this iirc otherwise there are several independent sites.

  18. Totally agree with the sentiment and how important the message is but have to say its poorly written and I wouldn’t put my name to it.

    And for what its worth I think it would have had much more impact with the non-cycling world if it was succinct and hadn’t degenerated in to swearing.

  19. Tinman, I actually agree with you, but there is a balance to be struck. Friday was a busy day on Twitter given the week’s news and I felt the need to say something on Friday. Carpe diem and all that. And I’m sure you’ll be familiar with the quote that goes something like “I’m sorry this is so long, but I didn’t have time to make it shorter.”

    If you want something that will have more impact with the non-cycling world then please write it, it would be most helpful.

  20. Ok, thanks, it was the nudge I needed to spend the train journey home tidying up just a couple of bits that were especially clumsily written. Deliberately didn’t change much, but the MTFU line is out.

  21. I’m going to be controversial and hated on here, but I’m going to suggest that us bikers pay road tax. Then we really can ask to be treated equally!

  22. firstly well said Stewart and secondly i would pay some form of tax if it was propotiaonate (size weight<car) but i and surely many others ARE paying road tax on the vehicle we are not driving whilst cycling

  23. theadventureman – aside form the normal arguments about it’s not road tax, it’s VED … cyclists pay tax on the cars that most of them own … if cyclists paid tax under current VED regs the bill would be zero etc etc

    …. it wouldn’t make any difference. Pay VED, go on. the rabid section of car driving society will just find some other way to dismiss you (take a test, have a license plate etc etc) until they finally get down to the bedrock of the argument; I’m 2T, you’re <100kg best stay out of my way if you want to stay safe … put another way; might makes right. the tax argument is a trap

  24. The zero-rate VED band is quite a useful tool here, I think: it very clearly demonstrates that the duty is directly related to the vehicle and not the road use, and that plenty of drivers don’t pay “road tax”. I prefer that line of argument to squabbling over the name of it.

    If you’re going to challenge use of the term “road tax” then IMO it’s only worthwhile doing so with companies and groups (even the police use it). Have a browse of Twitter and you’ll see cyclists latching rabidly onto anti-cyclist tweets left, right and centre and incessantly gain-saying these minor points. It’s hugely counter-productive and just reinforces the generalisation that cyclists are irritating bell ends. If people directed the same effort into more constructive debates then maybe we’d get somewhere.

  25. Road Tax was abolished by Winston Churchill as he was worried that those who pay different amounts would aly claim to differnet amount of the road.

    I just got a cracking reply from my MP’s office.:

    “Thank you very much for your email concerning Early Day Motion (EDM) 679. Unfortunately Guy is unable to sign the EDM as he is a Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to Mark Harper MP at the Home Office, which bars him from doing so. However, he has made clear his support for the sentiments behind the EDM and supports any efforts to make cycling on our roads safer. To that end, Guy has today written to the Department for Transport to make them aware of your concerns, and to specifically ask them what they are doing in relation to this important issue. Guy is a keen cyclist himself and cycles into work every morning.

    You may be interested to read the transcript from Dr. Julian Huppert’s debate on Cycling in February of this year, Guy managed to speak very briefly in the debate. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201212/cmhansrd/cm120223/halltext/120223h0001.htm

    I will ensure that Guy reads Stewart Pratt’s open letter, and also his post suggesting changes to the system. I am sure Guy will be interested to read it due to his time as a barrister.”

  26. Whilst I completely agree with the main sentiment: that sentencing guidelines are biased against cyclists, I don’t think that an angry letter is going to be taken seriously and invoke the sympathy needed to change minds.

  27. I would suggest that you send a link to the article on my site instead, which has had a little swearectomy.

    http://www.stewartpratt.com/?p=580

    Perhaps I should ask Mark to update this copy as well.

  28. And I (sort of) apologise for the anger in the original version, but when I wrote it I was furious. And I really didn’t expect it to end up anything like so widely viewed as it has been.

  29. PLus one for the petition needed for gov.uk
    Get the times behind it,
    We need to get INSIDE the system and make it work for us, there are enough of us after all, we are not a minority, and we shouldn’t be silent!

  30. My opinion is that there’s no burning rush to petition. I’d rather one was written after some feedback has come in – especially from MPs, who will after all be the ones whom the petition will be asking to act. No point writing one that’s nebulous or impracticable; it needs to propose well-defined and workable actions, and for that we need to understand what is workable at this stage.

  31. Also this case. car squeezes into a pinch at the same time as cyclist, knocks him off and kills him, and judge rules accidental death. This go tme worked up.

    http://singletrackworld.com/forum/topic/another-cyclist-dead-another-ruling-of-accidental-death

  32. Updated with less swearywurdz 🙂

  33. Yes, I recall the incident of the vicar. Utterly disgraceful. Just another case in the endless stream of judgments that say that it’s so difficult not to drive into someone and kill them that you couldn’t possibly be held responsible for doing so.

  34. Emailed my MP (John Denham) also with a version @brooess letter so I’ll let you know what I get back.

  35. Emailed my MP, Philip Davies Shipley. Not interested in the EDM as his priorities are to increase the capacity of the roads in the area. Seems oblivious to the fact that we use them and that promoting cycling, would actually reduce the need to increase capacity. If you are one of his “plebs” let him know how you feel.

  36. Can we start a register of these judges and their verdicts?

  37. I agree entirely I am shocked and dismayed at some of judgements.

    I also feel lights and helmets should be compulsory and there should also be tougher fines for cyclists who ride dangerously and ignore basic highway code.

    I was in Germany, Hannover recently. The cyclists had right of way, cycle lanes off the road. I’m sure its not a perfect system but looked as close as you can get. I was really impressed. Sadly our streets are just too narrow and today I witnessed a cyclist not using an off road cycle lane on a roman road (Kenilworth Road, Coventry) in the pouring rain wearing dark clothing. I just don’t understand, the infrastructure is there to keep you safe and traffic flowing yet some people choose to not use it.

    Going back to the original post, well said and I too will do as others and write to my MP.

  38. “I also feel lights and helmets should be compulsory”

    Lights are compulsory.
    Helmets are optional, but I fail to see any reason NOT to wear one if you’re a responsible person.

  39. It looks like there’s been some progress on this in the corridors of power:

    http://road.cc/content/news/72394-cycling-bodies-meet-justice-minister-call-review-sentencing

    nickdt – My mp is also Philip Davies and I got the same reply. Write back and ask him why he hasn’t signed the edm

  40. Lights are compulsory. Helmets are optional, but I fail to see any reason NOT to wear one if you’re a responsible person.

    Lights are compulsory at night, but not in rain, fog or other low-visibility conditions. A few years ago I took to using at least a rear one at all times, even on bright summer days – we have plenty of dappled tree cover round here and as a driver it can be hard to see when you’re going from light to dark quickly and repeatedly.

    I *can* see reasons not to wear a helmet, but that’s a big can of worms that warrants a separate blog post 🙂

  41. “today I witnessed a cyclist not using an off road cycle lane on a roman road (Kenilworth Road, Coventry) in the pouring rain wearing dark clothing”

    The problem with most of the “offload cycle lanes” (around here at least) is that they are an after thought, and as such are impractical to use due to the numerous road crossings, driveways and pedestrians. They are ok if you are content just to bimble along, but if you are trying to make a bit of progress or you’re on a training ride they are a waste of time.
    As for the dark clothing, I agree with you, although it doesn’t seem to make much difference! The way I look at it though is that should I get knocked off, the “offending” drivers insurance company will not be able to use non-visible clothing as an excuse to reduce the pay out!

  42. I am going to print this out and post it to my MP. I hope others do too. They work for us. Lets remind them of this. The cycling community is lamentably served by politicians. Lets start the fire under them.

    Good idea?

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