Skip navigation

How courts decide on motor sentences

There are a number of factors magistrates use when deciding whether to be tough or lenient 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.

Maximum penalty

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

Drink driving

  • Maximum penalty: six months in prison AND an unlimited driving ban.
  • Minimum: a discharge AND a 12 month driving ban.


  • Maximum: a £1,000 fine (£2,500 on the motorway) AND six penalty points or an unlimited driving ban.
  • Minimum: a discharge AND three penalty points.

Common aggravating features in drink driving & speeding cases

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

For example, a person who is stopped driving their car by the police with an alcohol reading of 40 microgrammes per 100 millilitres of breath (the limit is 35 microgrammes) on a quiet road, in dry conditions with no passengers and no other aggravating features could expect a fine and a disqualification of 12 months.

Another person could be stopped with the same reading of 40 microgrammes after an accident driving a car with three children in the back could 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 (a tag).

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 40mph in a 30mph 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.

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.

Compare car insurance - you could find a great deal in minutes Get a car quote

Like this? Share it

FREE BRIAN toy when you buy car insurance
(Ts & Cs apply)

Get a car insurance quote

Sharon Flaherty

Sharon Flaherty

Sharon Flaherty was editor and head of content at from September 2009 to September 2013. She has contributed to The Financial Times Group, The Times, Daily Express, Guardian and Independent.

View more from Sharon

Most popular articles

Alcohol: did you know?

In the UK, the alcohol limit for drivers is:

  • 80 milligrammes of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood
  • 35 microgrammes per 100 millilitres of breath
  • 107 milligrammes per 100 millilitres of urine alcohol units calculator

Alcohol units calculator

The safest bet is to not drive if you've consumed any alcohol at all. But you can work out how many units your drinks contain with our alcohol units calculator.

Get a QuickQuote in seconds