The majority of motorists know the standard penalties for most road traffic offences. It is no surprise that speeding can get you three penalty points and it is widely known that drink driving results in a ban.
What many fail to realise is that, whilst the court should follow the sentencing guidelines, those same guidelines allow a significant degree of discretion depending on the individual circumstances of the case.
Every offence listed in the road traffic sentencing guidelines has a section which lists aggravating and mitigating factors but we will use speeding as an example here as there are many factors that can play a role in the severity of a sentence.
In a nutshell, aggravating factors are circumstances of an offence that make it worse/more serious and indicate a higher degree of culpability and potential harm. Mitigating circumstances are the opposite; these are circumstances that indicate a lower degree of culpability or risk of harm.
For the purposes of this explanation we are going to disregard minor speeding offences that would result in a fixed penalty as aggravating and mitigation factors are something to be considered at court.
If we take a motorist, X, travelling at 56 mph in a 40 mph zone, the magistrates’ guidelines for this type of offence are as follows:
You can see in the end column that there is not just the one potential penalty available to the court and this is where the Magistrates can exercise their own discretion.
As our motorist, X, was caught speeding at 56 mph, he just enters this bracket of offenders travelling between 56 -65 mph. As such, the magistrates establish a starting point which should be the minimum penalty for this type of offence; in this case, 4 penalty points.
As the hearing progresses, the court hear how X was not only speeding, but he happened to be speeding on a road upon which there is a school and the offence took place at 8.45 am when the area is extremely busy with children.
This is one example of an aggravating factor and it gives the court justification to move away from the minimum penalty and impose something they consider better reflects the circumstances (i.e. the greater risk of harm in an area busy with children). This type of aggravating factor may mean that the court is more likely to impose 5 or 6 points or consider a disqualification from driving.
It is possible for more than one aggravating factor to be present. In addition to the time and location of the offence, it may also be that the driving conditions were extremely poor due to heavy rain.
In the court’s view, these are circumstances that should make a motorist drive even more carefully as opposed to speeding. Not only is a motorist breaking the law by speeding, but they are also endangering the safety of children by driving by a school at peak time and with reduced visibility!
The opposite side of this coin are when mitigating factors are present so if X was actually speeding at 65 mph it would change the starting point to 6 points or a disqualification.
Rather than driving by a school, however, the court hears how X had just received news that his wife had been rushed into hospital and he was speeding to try and reach her. Whilst this is not an excuse for speeding, it may make the court sympathise a little more with X and consider the penalty more carefully. This may lead to greater leniency.
There are some factors which many may think are mitigation but may be strong enough to qualify as a special reason.
Factors indicating higher culpability are:
Factors indicating greater degree of harm
Factors indicating lower culpability:
Different factors are relevant depending on the type of offence. In alcohol related cases the court may look at whether there is evidence of serious impairment or a significantly reduced standard of driving for example.
We hope this guidance helps clarify how the courts approach sentencing but we would always urge you to contact us on 020 7923 4020 if you have been charged with an offence.