Criminal investigation and charges

Information and advice on the police investigation; the Public Prosecution Service and your right to be heard; criminal charges.

The police investigation

A death on the road is investigated by the police. The police have a duty to try to find out what happened by gathering evidence. A police investigation can take several months.

Your police contact should be able to explain the procedures involved in the police investigation to help you understand how long it will last.

Giving a statement

The police may take statements from a number of different people. If you were involved in the crash, you saw the crash, or you saw vehicles before or after the crash, you may be asked to give a statement. If you were not involved in the crash, but knew the movements of a loved one on the day they died, you may be asked to give a statement too. If you give a statement, the police will write down and may record what you say.

If you have made a statement, a lawyer, or more than one lawyer, may want to interview you too. This is an essential part of the investigation and helps lawyers understand the evidence you are providing. Your contact details remain confidential – they cannot be given to someone accused of a crime.

It may be possible for a relative or friend to attend an interview with you to offer support. If you want to be accompanied ask if this is possible. If you have particular communication needs you may also be entitled to assistance from an interpreter or intermediary (someone who helps communicate to you questions the police ask, and communicate back your answers).

The police may also offer you the opportunity to make a Victim Personal Statement.

If you give a statement, you may or may not be required, at a later date, to give evidence in court.

Physical evidence

Crash investigation officers, who are usually specially-trained police officers, or employees of other specialist agencies, investigate a crash in order to identify the cause and obtain evidence. These experts may photograph, measure and video the scene of a crash and examine vehicles involved. They may examine belongings of people in the crash, such as mobile phones.

Medical evidence

Medical evidence may be provided by personnel who tended to a loved one at the crash or in hospital, and by the pathologist who did the post-mortem examination. Medical evidence can include alcohol and drug tests on drivers involved.

If the crash involved someone driving for work

If the crash involved someone driving for work, the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland (HSENI) may get involved in the investigation. HSENI inspectors aim to identify any failure by an employer to ensure effective health and safety procedures were in place and followed. The investigation will usually be conducted jointly with the police. The police will be able to tell you if the HSENI are involved. The HSENI can take enforcement action against an employer. For more information about the HSENI go to www.hseni.gov.uk.

If the crash involved drugs or alcohol

If the police suspect that the crash involved drugs or alcohol, they will test drivers as soon as possible after arrest with a breath test or by taking samples of blood or urine. Breath tests provide an immediate result but samples of blood or urine are sent for analysis. The results of tests for blood or alcohol will be used to determine whether police charge or report the driver. You may or may not be told the results of tests for blood or alcohol.

The police report

If the police investigation finds any evidence that suggests a crime may have been committed, this evidence is compiled into a report that is sent to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS), the agency responsible for bringing prosecutions. The report is also sent to the coroner. You are not entitled to see this report but your police contact should tell you about any relevant information that it contains.

If you wish to find out more about the police report, you or a solicitor you are using can ask the police.

Standards have been set for fatal road crash investigations in a police document called the Authorised Professional Practice (APP): Investigation of fatal and serious road collisions. You can access this through www.brake.org.uk/help-for-victims/14-services-forvictims/243-agencycodes.

The Public Prosecution Service

The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) is responsible for prosecuting criminal cases investigated by the police in Northern Ireland. It works from regional offices.

If the police investigation indicates that the conduct of someone, or several people, or in some cases a company, amounted to a crime, the police will submit an investigation file to the PPS. The PPS will then review the case and decide whether or not to prosecute. The purpose of a criminal prosecution is to find out if someone has broken the law and appropriately sentence them. PPS lawyers, called public prosecutors, apply two key tests when deciding whether a person should be prosecuted:

  1. Is there enough evidence against the defendant?

The PPS must consider there is enough evidence to charge someone, whether the evidence can be used in court, and whether the evidence is reliable and credible. There must be sufficient evidence for a ‘reasonable prospect of conviction’. (This is different to the way a court decides whether to convict a person. A court should convict someone only if there is enough evidence to make the court sure they are guilty.)

  1. Is it in the public interest for the PPS to bring the case to court?

If someone has died as a result of a crime, a prosecution is usually in the public interest.

Following a review of the evidence, the PPS selects the most appropriate charge to reflect the seriousness and extent of any offending.

The PPS acts on behalf of the public interest, not on behalf of victims or victims’ families. However, when deciding if a prosecution is in the public interest, the public prosecutors should take into account any views that you or others have expressed.

Whether or not a criminal prosecution will happen in your case depends on the circumstances of the crash.

Victim and Witness Care Unit

To help you understand the prosecution process, you should be appointed a case officer who works for a Victim and Witness Care Unit (VWCU). The VWCU is run by the PPS and the police. Your police contact should let you know when the VWCU has received details about your case. You can contact the VWCU yourself or you can ask your police contact to contact the VWCU on your behalf.

You should receive a letter from the PPS within 10 days of a suspect being charged by the police or within 10 days of the police submitting an investigation file. This letter should give you information about the role of the PPS, the judicial process, how you can request a meeting and other agencies that can support you.

Your VWCU case officer should keep you informed, using your preferred means of contact (telephone, letter or email) and at a preferred time of day where possible, about:

  • whether there has been a decision to prosecute or not;
  • court proceedings;
  • the outcome of a prosecution and any appeal.

If the PPS decides not to prosecute, it must say why. You should be informed of this decision and given reasons by your VWCU case officer. You can ask for more detailed information about the decision and request a meeting with the PPS. You can also ask the PPS to review its decision.

Victim Personal Statements

If a decision is taken to prosecute someone for a crime committed against you, then you should be offered the opportunity to make a Victim Personal Statement (VPS). This gives you an opportunity to explain in writing, before sentence is imposed, how the crash has affected your life, physically, emotionally, socially, financially, or in any other way. You can write your own VPS or someone else can help you write down what you want to say. Your police contact can also help you write your statement.

A VPS becomes part of the case papers and may be read out in court. You will not be asked to read out your VPS in court. You may be asked questions about the content of your statement by the judge or the defence lawyers. As part of their sentencing comments, the judge may talk about your VPS. If you do not want your comments to be talked about in court, you should say this in your statement.

You do not have to make a victim statement if you do not want to. It will not damage a case in any way or affect whether anyone is found guilty or not guilty of a crime.

If you wish to make a VPS, please talk to your police contact or a charity that supports victims of crime.

Victim Support NI is one independent charity that can help you prepare your VPS. Its help is free and confidential. Call 028 9024 3133 or 02871 370086 or go to www.victimsupportni.com.

Charging someone and the possibility of bail

Someone who is charged with an offence is often called ‘the accused’. The accused person may be arrested by the police and taken to a police station to be interviewed. After the interview, they may be charged or they may be released until a report has been submitted to the PPS. Alternatively, the accused person may be issued with a court summons requiring them to attend court. The summons describes the offence and the date and venue of the first court hearing.

An accused person may be remanded in custody (imprisoned) or given bail (allowed to remain free before their case is heard). The accused will be granted bail unless the court has reason to believe they:

  • would not attend a court appearance;
  • would commit an offence while on bail;
  • would interfere with witnesses;
  • would obstruct the course of justice.

People on bail are required to:

  • turn up, when required, to court hearings;
  • comply with the law;
  • not interfere with witnesses or obstruct the course of justice;
  • make themselves available to the court as and when necessary.

Conditions may be attached to bail, such as limiting where the accused can live, or preventing them coming near you or your home or near someone else. A person on bail can also be electronically tagged. A court may require an accused person to refrain from driving as a condition of bail, but only if it considers that it is necessary to prevent the accused person from committing further offences. Otherwise, an accused person who is on bail and who possesses a valid driving licence will be allowed to continue driving while awaiting trial. It may or may not be possible to disqualify an accused person later if they are convicted in court.

The accused person may apply for bail at different stages of the case, even if it has been refused earlier. The accused may appeal against a decision not to grant bail. If bail is still refused on appeal, the accused can ask for the decision to be reviewed, but only if there has been a change in circumstances. If bail is granted, the prosecution can only appeal against the decision in rare circumstances.

If the accused is granted bail and their behaviour causes you concern, for example you see them driving in a way that you consider dangerous, or if they threaten you, report it immediately to your police contact.

Changes to charges

Sometimes, if the accused is facing a serious charge, the lawyers representing the accused ask the PPS for the charge to be changed to a less serious charge, on the basis of the evidence of the case. This request can happen before a case goes to trial.

The PPS may decide to continue prosecuting the accused for the serious charge or may reduce the charge. Their decision is based on the evidence and what is in the public interest.

Criminal charges that may follow death on the road

Here is a list of some of the criminal charges that are available to the PPS following death on the road, and maximum penalties. Many people find it helpful to know that:

  • Maximum penalties are fixed by law and vary for different charges, sometimes significantly. Courts often impose penalties lower than the maximum.
  • Some charges mention the death or deaths, but others do not. Sometimes the only charges that can be brought by the PPS do not mention the death or deaths.
  • Sometimes several charges are brought, sometimes against different people.

Brake’s helpline on 0808 8000 401 is for anyone who has been bereaved in a road crash, whether you contributed to causing the crash or not.

Causing death or grievous bodily injury by dangerous driving

Article 9 of the Road Traffic (NI) Order 1995 (SI 1995 No. 2994 NI 18)

The law states that: ‘A person who causes the death of, or grievous bodily injury to, another person by driving a mechanically propelled vehicle dangerously on a road or other public place is guilty of an offence.’

The definition of dangerous driving is that:

  1. a) the way a person drove fell far below what would be expected of a competent and careful driver, and
  2. b) it would be obvious to a competent and careful driver that driving in that way would be dangerous. It is also dangerous driving if it would have been obvious to a competent and careful driver that driving a vehicle in its current state (for example, with defective brakes or other defective safety-critical components) would be dangerous.

This offence is tried in a Crown Court. The maximum penalty is a prison sentence of 14 years and/or an unlimited fine. The driver must be disqualified from driving for a minimum period of two years unless there are special reasons not to disqualify. The court must also order the driver to be disqualified until s/he passes the appropriate driving test. In rare cases where the driver is not disqualified, the driver’s licence must be endorsed with between three and 11 penalty points.

Causing death or grievous bodily injury by careless or inconsiderate driving

Article 11A of the Road Traffic (NI) Order 1995 (as introduced by article 52 of the Criminal Justice (NI) Order 2008)

The law states that: ‘A person who causes the death of, or grievous bodily injury to, another person by driving a mechanically propelled vehicle on a road or other public place without due care and attention, or without reasonable consideration for other persons using the road or place, is guilty of an offence.’

The law distinguishes between ‘dangerous’ driving and ‘careless or inconsiderate’ driving. The definition of careless and inconsiderate driving is that the standard of a person’s driving fell below (rather than far below) what would be expected of a careful and competent driver.

This offence can be tried in either a Crown Court or a Magistrates’ Court. The maximum penalty is a prison sentence of five years and an unlimited fine in the Crown Court, or a prison sentence of six months and a maximum fine of £5,000 in a Magistrates’ Court. The driver must be disqualified from driving for a minimum period of one year. In rare cases where the driver is not disqualified, their driver’s licence must be endorsed with between three and 11 penalty points.

Causing death or grievous bodily injury by careless driving when under the influence of drink or drugs

Article 14 of the Road Traffic (NI) Order 1995

The law states that: 'If a person causes the death of, or grievous bodily injury to, another by driving a mechanically propelled vehicle on a road or other public place without due care and attention, or without reasonable consideration for other persons using the road or place, and he is, at the time when driving, unfit to drive through drink or drugs, or he has consumed so much alcohol that the proportion in his breath, blood or urine exceeds the prescribed limit, or he is required to provide a specimen but without reasonable excuse fails to provide it, or he is required by a constable to give permission for a laboratory test of a specimen of blood but without reasonable excuse fails to do so, he is guilty of an offence.'

If a driver is proven to have had more than the legal limit for alcohol in their system at the time of the crash, the prosecution does not have to prove the driver’s driving ability was impaired.

This offence is tried in a Crown Court. The maximum penalty is a prison sentence of 14 years and an unlimited fine. Anyone convicted must be disqualified from driving for a minimum period of two years unless there are special reasons not to disqualify. In rare cases where the driver is not disqualified, their licence must be endorsed with between three and 11 penalty points.

Causing death or grievous bodily injury by driving: unlicensed, disqualified or uninsured drivers

Article 12B of the Road Traffic (NI) Order 1995 (as introduced by Article 53 of the Criminal Justice (NI) Order 2008)

The law states that: ‘A person is guilty of an offence under this Article if he causes the death of, or grievous bodily injury to, another person by driving a motor vehicle on a road and, at the time when he is driving, the circumstances are such that he is committing an offence under –

  1. Article 3(1) of the Road Traffic (NI) Order 1981 (driving otherwise than in accordance with a licence),
  2. Article 90 of that Order (using a motor vehicle while uninsured or unsecured against third party risks), or
  3. Article 168A(1)(c) of that Order (driving while disqualified).’

It is possible that a driver may not be charged with this offence if their driving was without fault (for example, if the person they hit and killed caused the collision themselves because they were drink driving). In 2013 a judge ruled that driving without a licence or insurance would not be enough to hold the driver criminally responsible for causing a death if their driving was otherwise blameless.

This offence can be tried in either a Crown Court or a Magistrates’ Court. The maximum penalty is a prison sentence of two years and an unlimited fine in the Crown Court, or a prison sentence of six months and a maximum fine of £5,000 in a Magistrates’ Court. The driver must be disqualified from driving for a minimum period of one year. In rare cases where the driver is not disqualified, the driver’s licence must be endorsed with between three and 11 penalty points.

Murder and manslaughter charges

Common Law

Murder is committed when there was intention to kill a victim or cause grievous bodily harm. This would mean that the driver had purposefully used their vehicle as a weapon. Charges of murder are rarely brought against drivers following a fatal road crash.

There are two types of manslaughter charge that could be brought against a driver who has caused death. ‘Unlawful act manslaughter’ is committed when the accused caused loss of life through an illegal action, such as using a vehicle to attack or frighten someone (but with no intention to kill or cause grievous bodily harm).

‘Gross negligence manslaughter’ is committed when it is proven that the accused’s driving: caused the victim’s death; fell far below the standard of a careful and competent driver; involved an obvious and serious risk of death; and was a gross breach of a ‘duty of care’ owed by the driver to the person who died. Gross negligence manslaughter is a very serious charge and is only appropriate in cases where evidence shows that the accused’s driving was highly likely to cause a death.

The offences of murder and manslaughter are tried in a Crown Court. Murder carries a mandatory life sentence. Manslaughter has a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Anyone convicted must be disqualified from driving for a minimum period of two years and then required to pass a driving test to regain a full driving licence, unless there are special reasons not to disqualify. In rare cases where the driver is not disqualified, their driver’s licence must be endorsed with between three and 11 penalty points.

Wanton or furious driving causing bodily harm

Section 35, Offences against the Person Act 1861 (as amended by the Road Safety Act 2006, section 28)

Bad driving offences under the Road Traffic Act must involve a motorised vehicle, and take place on a public road or in a public place. By contrast, the offences of ‘Wanton or furious driving causing bodily harm’, as well as the offences of murder or manslaughter, do not have these restrictions. They can be committed even if the offender is using a non-motorised vehicle, such as a bicycle. They can also be committed wherever the driving takes place, including on private land. This offence is normally only directed by the PPS when it is not possible to prosecute an offence under the road traffic legislation.

This offence is tried in the Crown Court. The maximum penalty is a prison sentence of two years and/or an unlimited fine. Anyone convicted of this offence will not be disqualified from driving, but their driver’s licence will be endorsed with between three and nine penalty points if driving a mechanically propelled vehicle.

Corporate manslaughter and corporate homicide

Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007

The law states that: ‘An organisation is guilty of an offence if the way in which its activities are managed or organised: (a) causes a person’s death, and (b) amounts to a gross breach of a relevant duty of care owed by the organisation to the deceased.’

A ‘duty of care’ is defined as a duty owed by an organisation to its employees or contractors, a duty owed as the occupier of premises or other duties described in law that relate to the running of the organisation. An organisation is guilty of a ‘gross breach’ of a relevant duty of care if its conduct fell far below what would be reasonably expected. For example, if a company failed to ensure a vehicle it was operating had serviced brakes, and the vehicle lost control and killed someone.

This offence is tried in a Crown Court, and the director of the PPS must give consent for the trial to take place. Any penalty is against the company, not individuals working for the company. The court may impose an unlimited fine. The court may also impose a remedial order (where an organisation must make changes to prevent future breaches of health and safety laws) and a publicity order (where an organisation must publicise the details of its offence).

Gross negligence manslaughter by company employees

Common Law

Individuals within companies can be prosecuted for gross negligence manslaughter if their actions were criminal and directly led to a fatal crash. For example, if a boss of a lorry company told a driver not to take their legally-required rest breaks and the driver fell asleep at the wheel, or if they told their mechanic not to replace worn brakes on a lorry and these brakes failed. Companies can also be prosecuted for gross negligence manslaughter if an individual found guilty of the offence plays a significant role in the management of the organisation’s activities.

If an individual is found guilty of gross negligence manslaughter, the maximum penalty is life imprisonment. If a company is found guilty, it can receive an unlimited fine.

Aggravated vehicle taking (often called ‘joy riding’ in the media)

Articles 172A and 172B, Road Traffic (NI) Order 1981

This offence is committed when a person takes a vehicle without the owner's consent or other lawful authority for his own or another's use, or, knowing that any vehicle has been taken without such authority, drives it or allows himself to be carried in it or on it and at any time after the vehicle was unlawfully taken, whether by them or by another, and before it was recovered:

  1. the vehicle was driven dangerously on a road or other public place; or
  2. owing to the driving of the vehicle, grievous bodily injury or death was caused to any person (Article 172B); or
  3. owing to the driving of the vehicle, damage was caused to any property other than the vehicle; or
  4. owing to the driving of the vehicle, damage was caused to the vehicle.

An Article 172A offence does not require a specific level of injury to have been caused.

Article 172A offences are tried in both Crown Courts and Magistrates' Courts. Article 172B offences are tried in a Crown Court only. The maximum sentence in a Crown Court is 14 years' imprisonment if a death was caused and an unlimited fine. The maximum sentence in a Magistrates' Court is six months' imprisonment and a £5,000 fine. The driver must be disqualified for a minimum of one year. If dangerous driving is proven the convicted person must pass an extended driving test before a full driving licence can be obtained. In rare cases where the driver is not disqualified, the driver’s licence must be endorsed with between three and 11 penalty points.

Failing to stop or report an accident (often called ‘hit and run’ in the media)

Article 175, Road Traffic (NI) Order 1981

A driver involved in a crash causing death, injury or damage is required to stop, remain at the scene and give their details. If they don’t, they are required to report the crash to a police officer ‘as soon as reasonably practicable’. This offence is committed if a driver doesn't do this.

Offences under this section are tried in a Magistrates’ Court. The maximum penalty is a prison sentence of six months and a fine of £5,000. The driver can be disqualified from driving. If not, their licence must be endorsed with five to 10 penalty points.

Charges for killing someone by using a defective vehicle

If an unsafe vehicle (for example, a vehicle with defective brakes) has caused a death, then a charge, or range of charges, depending on the case, may be brought against the driver, the owner of the vehicle if different (for example, the boss of a company running a fleet of vehicles), or anyone else considered responsible.

It may be possible, for example, to bring charges of causing death or grievous bodily injury by dangerous driving , aiding and abetting, or corporate manslaughter.

There may be a charge of failing to comply with Construction and Use Regulations. These impose requirements relating to safety critical components such as brakes, tyres, lights, steering, tachographs (which record driving time of commercial vehicles) and speed limiters (which restrict speed on commercial vehicles).

In addition, bosses of lorry and bus companies must hold a special licence issued by the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland, Transport Licensing and Enforcement Branch. The Department has the power to take these licences away from bosses who break safety rules.

Breaches of Construction and Use Regulations are heard in a Magistrates' Court. There is a range of maximum fines which can be imposed for different Construction and Use offences, the highest of which is £5,000. It may also be possible to disqualify an offender from running a company.

Charges that do not mention death or injury

The following charges do not mention death or injury, but are sometimes brought against a driver who was involved in a fatal crash:

  • Dangerous driving
    Article 10 of the Road Traffic (Northern Ireland) Order 1995; and
  • Careless or inconsiderate driving
    Article 12 of the Road Traffic (Northern Ireland) Order 1995.

In some cases, there is evidence that a driver was driving dangerously or carelessly before or after the crash, but there is no evidence to prove dangerous or careless driving at the time of the crash. In these cases, the PPS may only be able to bring charges of dangerous driving or careless driving, rather than the more serious charges of ‘causing death by dangerous driving’ or ‘causing death by careless or inconsiderate driving’.

Dangerous driving can be tried in either a Crown Court or a Magistrates’ Court. The maximum penalty is a prison sentence of five years and an unlimited fine in the Crown Court, or a prison sentence of six months and a fine of £5,000 in a Magistrates’ Court. The driver must be disqualified from driving for a minimum of one year unless there are special reasons to impose a shorter disqualification or no disqualification. The driver must pass an extended driving test before they can regain a full driving licence.

Careless or inconsiderate driving is tried in a Magistrates’ Court. The maximum penalty is a fine of £5,000. The driver can be disqualified from driving, or, if not, their licence must be endorsed with between three and nine penalty points.

Driving otherwise than in accordance with a licence

Article 3(1) the Road Traffic (NI) Order 1981

A person commits this offence if they drive when they do not hold a driving licence, or if they do not comply with the conditions of their licence.

This offence is tried in a Magistrates' Court. The maximum sentence is a fine of £1,000 and three to six penalty points. The driver may be disqualified.

Driving while disqualified

Article 168A(1)(c) the Road Traffic (NI) Order 1981

If a person drives during a period when they are disqualified from driving they commit this offence.

When tried in the Crown Court, the maximum sentence is two years’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. If tried in a Magistrates' Court, the maximum sentence is six months’ imprisonment and a fine of up to £5,000. The driver can be disqualified from driving. In rare cases where the driver is not disqualified, the driver’s licence must be endorsed with six penalty points.

Driving without motor insurance

Article 90 the Road Traffic (NI) Order 1981

If a person drives a vehicle on a road, or any other public place without motor insurance, they have committed this offence.

This offence is tried in a Magistrates' Court. The maximum sentence is a fine of up to £5,000 and six months’ imprisonment. The driver may be disqualified from driving or the driving licence endorsed with between six and eight penalty points. However, if the driver is being tried for additional serious offences it may be heard in the Crown Court together with those offences.

Aiding and abetting

Someone who encourages another person to commit an offence may also be guilty of that offence. For example, if a passenger in a vehicle encourages the driver to drive dangerously, the passenger may be guilty of aiding and abetting the dangerous driving. Generally, the same penalties apply, although length of licence disqualification may differ. This can also apply in the case of a company that uses drivers (such as a lorry or bus operator) and allowed those drivers to drive dangerously, or use vehicles in a dangerous condition. The company, or a manager within the company, may be charged.

Bringing a private prosecution

It is sometimes possible for a member of the public, rather than the PPS, to prosecute another person for a criminal offence. This is called a private prosecution. This process is very costly and you cannot claim legal aid. The PPS has the authority to take over any private prosecution and either continue or discontinue its prosecution. All cases in the Crown Court have to be prosecuted by the PPS.

Sometimes, the government introduces new offences, or changes the definition of an offence, or changes an offence’s maximum penalty.

Further information on all charges can be found in a document called Road Traffic Policy. Access this document at www.brake.org.uk/support.


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