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Jeanette Miller

How courts decide on motor sentences


There are a number of factors magistrates use when deciding whether or not to be tough on motor offenders, as legal expert Jeanette Miller explains.

Legal aid

Fixed-penalty motoring offences make it easy for the police to deal with misdemeanours without the time, money and effort of a court case.

With fixed penalties, the police can, to some extent, disregard the circumstances of the offence as the penalty is not open to negotiation. 

But in court, matters are different: there can be great differences between sentences handed down for what appear to be similar offences.

This is especially the case when it comes to speeding or drink driving.

Minimum and maximum penalties

When a person pleads guilty or is found guilty at court then the sentencing magistrates have very wide powers.

Offence Points Driving ban Fine Prison
Speeding - min 3 None £100 No
Speeding - max 3-6 Unlimited £1,000 - £2,500 No
Drink-driving - min* 3-11 Up to 12 months up to £2,500 3 months
Drink-driving - max** 3-11 Unlimited Unlimited 6 months

*Being in charge of a vehicle while above the legal limit or unfit through drink
** Driving or attempting to drive while above the legal limit or unfit through drink

Common aggravating features in drink-driving and speeding cases

If you are sentenced, the court takes into account certain factors as aggravating features which can result in a tougher penalty.

Say you're stopped by the police and you've an alcohol reading of 40mg per 100ml of breath, where the limit is 35mg.

If this is on a quiet road, in dry conditions with no passengers and no other aggravating features you could expect a fine and a disqualification of 12 months.

If you're stopped with the same reading after an accident and you're driving with three kids in the back, expect a community order and a disqualification of up to 28 months. 

The community order could involve unpaid work, alcohol counselling or an electronically monitored curfew.

Policeman with speed gun

The list below shows the most common aggravating features for driving cases which could result in a longer ban, possible community order or at worst, a prison sentence.

  • The level of the alcohol reading.
  • The level of speed over the speed limit.
  • Involvement  in an accident.
  • Location: e.g. near a school.
  • High level of traffic or pedestrians in the area.
  • High speed for speeding offences.
  • Driving a large goods vehicle or a passenger-carrying vehicle.
  • Driving in poor road conditions.
  • Driving in poor weather conditions.
  • Carrying passengers or heavy load.
  • Driving for hire or reward.
  • Evidence of unacceptable standard of driving.

Mitigating factors

On the other end of the scale are mitigating factors - circumstances that could have the effect of reducing the penalty imposed. 

For example, speeding at 40 mph in a 30 mph area past a school at going home time on a wet day could result in four to five penalty points or more. 

However, doing the same speed on an industrial estate on a Sunday morning would probably mean just three points.

Other mitigating factors include:

  • Genuine emergency established.
  • A very short distance driven.
  • Drink spiked.
  • A greater degree of provocation than normally expected.
  • Mental illness or disability.
  • Youth or age, where it affects the responsibility of the individual defendant
  • The fact that the offender played only a minor role in the offence.
  • Genuine remorse.
  • Admissions to police in interview.
  • Ready co-operation with authorities.

Person in handcuffs

Meet aggravating features head on: don't make it worse!

There are cases when evidence of an aggravating feature cannot be challenged. 

In that case it is quite often the best approach to meet the case head on and apologise. 

Magistrates will often appreciate defendants at court being realistic. Genuine remorse is a powerful mitigating feature and can often reduce the level of sentence.

It is always advisable to have plenty of mitigation evidence at court if there are any. 

Character references and testimonials are always useful as well.

Jeanette Miller is managing director at Geoffrey Miller Solicitors, a UK firm specialising in defending drivers who face prosecution for motoring offences.


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