Letter from a serving Magistrate
Name and address supplied


We have received the following letter from a chap known to us to be a serving magistrate. Naturally he does not wish his name to be published. You have our absolute assurance that the letter is genuine.

Dear Safe Speed,

Dumb enforcement or intelligent justice?

British justice is renowned the world over for its fairness and impartiality. The British judicial system or many of its principles form the basis of the systems of numerous other nations. As a Magistrate, I am proud to be able to play a role in it.

There is far more to “Justice” than merely enforcing the law. This is not only because justice involves concepts and judgements of what is fair, honourable, open-minded and even-handed but also because the actions of human beings are complex and the law needs to be interpreted to suit the circumstances of individual cases and to take account of changes in society.

For an extreme example, take the question of “mercy killing” or “assisted suicide”, both of which could be regarded as murder. In some circumstances the “offender” is not convicted of murder because it would seem unjust. They may be a long term carer of the deceased who has clearly acted upon the wishes of that person and obviously acted “in extremis”, without any thought of personal gain, and the circumstances in which they would offend again are unlikely ever to be repeated, so their conviction would serve no useful purpose. In other cases they may be convicted, but of a lesser charge. This is an example of intelligent justice rather than dumb law enforcement.

As a simpler example, consider a man who has just returned from many years working abroad and who has no home in this country. He goes to stay temporarily with a relative while he finds a place of his own. While the relative is out, the TV licence records inspector calls and finds an unlicensed TV in use by the visitor. The visitor is charged with using a TV without a licence, which, in law, is correct. By the time he appears in court, he may have moved to an address of his own where he has a TV licence and he has no previous convictions for not having a TV licence. He was clearly guilty of the offence and he could be fined hundreds of pounds. But would this be “justice” when he was an innocent victim of his relative's error?

It is easy to enforce the law. To administer justice is much more difficult. That is why much of it is done by people specially selected for their experience of life, their standing in the community and their ability to make balanced, fair and impartial judgements based upon all the circumstances of an individual case - Magistrates.

There is an increasing trend today for enforcement of the law to become an automated process where not only guilt but also punishment is specified in an inflexible way. Fixed penalties now exist, and more will soon exist, for all kinds of petty misdemeanours and in some cases there may not be any human judgement in the process. Politicians, driven by what they perceive as public demand, specify more and more minimum sentences which tie the hands of Judges and Magistrates. Automated detection and mandatory minimum sentences make enforcement of the law simpler but make achieving “Justice” in its widest sense much more difficult.

Nowhere is this more so than in the case of automated speed cameras to enforce speed limits. I will not call them safety cameras because they cannot measure safety or the lack of it. I am not against the use of properly set and appropriate speed limits which have been decided on road safety grounds rather than on political correctness. I do think that there is a small place for speed cameras in road safety policy, but only at true long-standing accident black spots which have proved impossible to remove by road engineering, and there should be very few of these. It is abundantly clear from all the information on the Safe Speed web site that speed cameras are not being used in this way at present, but are being placed where blips in the statistics can best justify their installation in the short term on financial grounds and where drivers are most likely to be found exceeding speed limits without necessarily causing danger. The result is that thousands of normal, law-abiding people are being unfairly criminalised and penalised. This is made worse by a lack of mandatory national guidelines for the setting of speed limits and the tendency for lower limits to be set by local councillors on grounds of political expediency rather than road safety.

Exceeding a posted speed limit is the classic victimless crime. It is never, of itself, a cause of danger. It must always be seen in the context of the road and traffic conditions and the capabilities of the driver and the vehicle, all variable factors which a speed camera cannot distinguish. But if a driver decides not to pay the fixed penalty and instead goes to explain himself in court, he cannot be fined less than the fixed penalty whatever the mitigating factors and he has costs to pay in addition. The court can take into account such information as is available to it regarding the seriousness of the offence, but in such cases the information is usually minimal and may rely on the Magistrates knowing the road concerned. The main determinant of the punishment, apart from the defendant's income, is by how many miles per hour the limit was exceeded. It makes justice a numbers game and this is not justice as I understand it. Nor, to judge from Safe Speed, is it road safety, because a safe speed cannot be judged in miles per hour. Drivers see the injustice and irrationality of this approach and rightly resent it. So many drivers now have points for speeding that such a conviction is losing its stigma. An organisation has grown up to criminally damage the cameras, a far more serious charge than speeding. The unjust use of and enforcement of a single law is reducing respect for the law generally, not only motoring law but the whole relationship between individuals and society. 

Meanwhile, the over-emphasis on speed limit compliance detracts from drivers’ judgement of a safe as opposed to a legal speed. Many now confuse a legal speed with a safe one and no longer vary their speed correctly according to hazards and conditions. Their whole understanding of the relationship between speed and safety and between speed and the conditions has been undermined and distorted. This is clearly to the detriment of driving standards and hence of road safety.

It is time for the Government to rethink its present disastrous road safety strategy. After ten years it is obvious that the great speed camera experiment has been a failure. Instead of being used where they could actually make a difference, they have been exploited for financial gain and the statistics which have been used to support their current use has been a gigantic confidence trick.

Speed cameras should be used only as a last resort in intractable black spots which cannot be resolved by road engineering (I mean proper road engineering, not speed humps and chicanes).

Speed enforcement should be carried out by traffic police and should be based upon whether the speed used is safe, not solely on a game of numbers. Officers should use judgement about when a vehicle's speed is causing actual or potential danger. Enforcement of a safe speed, whether this is above or below the speed limit, is the only enforcement which will improve road safety and is the only enforcement justified in the public interest. It is totally counter-productive to penalise a driver who is driving safely, whether above or below the speed limit. Enforcement may include anything from stopping and warning or advising a driver to bringing a charge of dangerous driving, all depending on the circumstances. No driver who is driving safely and responsibly should feel in danger of prosecution. Drivers need to be free to concentrate on the road and to choose a safe speed for the situation, without having to check the speedometer continually. Intelligent justice in place of dumb enforcement would serve both justice and road safety.

Driver education needs to be brought to the fore. There are so many opportunities and avenues for this today, from fleet training and driver improvement courses to the voluntary sector (IAM, RoSPA etc.) and the internet, that no drivers need to miss out. This education needs to cover all aspects of driving, not merely the safe use of speed.

I wish you every success in your campaign to bring about a complete change in road safety policy.

Yours sincerely,

Madge E Strate

The competent and careful actions of a majority of responsible people should obviously be considered legal

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Created 4/12/2003. Last update 4/12/2003