It appears that being killed by a drunk or speeding driver does not qualify for an unlawful killing verdict, at least not according to the High Court.
In a decision last week, the High Court, sitting with the newly appointed Chief Coroner, Judge Peter Thornton QC, ruled that an unlawful killing verdict is restricted to murder, manslaughter, including corporate manslaughter, and infanticide. They claimed:
The offences of causing death by dangerous driving, causing death by careless driving and other driving offences where death is caused do not fall within the scope of a verdict of unlawful killing in the coroner jurisdiction.
The prospect of hundreds of cases each year being considered by a coroner or a jury, as potential cases of unlawful killing because of some possible careless driving, is alarming, would involve a disproportionate amount of time and expense.
This ruling adds a new layer of discrimination against road crash victims. If unlawful killing verdicts remain possible for manslaughter cases, how can they not be possible for road deaths? It seems for cost reasons, according to the new Chief Coroner.
Deaths involving careless driving should be tried in the criminal court and do not normally involve a full inquest. But there will be times where a culpable driver has died before prosecution, for instance when a drink driver is killed in a crash that also takes the life of an innocent passenger, as in the case of Diana, Princess of Wales http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7328754.stm.
Less frequently, the culpable driver may be uninjured in the crash but can die before prosecution, as in the case of Natalie Wade http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/essex/7699144.stm. An unlawful killing was the verdict in her inquest, and rightly so.
There’s also the case of Ellie Carey. Ellie was alive this time last year. Whilst cycling to university on December 2, she was run over by a left turning lorry driver. He was arrested on suspicion of Causing Death by Careless Driving. Before he could be formally charged by the CPS and prosecuted in court, the driver died a natural death. There will now be an inquest into Ellie’s death and no chance of an unlawful killing verdict.
Inquests into road deaths abroad should also be able to use an unlawful killing where the driver is being prosecuted for causing the death. Glenn Daly was killed in Crete in 2006 and the lorry driver responsible is being prosecuted for negligent homicide. Glenn’s inquest should have qualified for an unlawful killing verdict.
For over two decades, RoadPeace has been campaigning for coroner reform. A key call has been for a specific short form road death verdict. This would stop the use of accidental verdicts, a term families bereaved by road deaths find insulting, and also allow the number of road death inquests to be counted and the true scale of road death to be acknowledged within the criminal justice system. Following this ruling, a road death verdict is needed now more than ever.