Ex-legal chief warns on cycle law

Published: Thursday 9th April 2015 by The News Editor

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A proposed law change aimed at protecting cyclists could have wider legal consequences – including tweaking the issue of welfare benefits – the former head of the Crown Prosecution Service has said.

Sir Keir Starmer, a Labour parliamentary candidate, warned against introducing presumed liability in civil cases for motoring accidents involving cyclists.

He said there may be space to develop the law although added any presumptions that viewed somebody as in the wrong before work took place to establish the facts was a “very dangerous concept”.

Under presumed liability in accidents involving cyclists, the onus would be on the driver of the bigger vehicle – such as a car or a lorry – to prove they were not to blame.

Campaigners say the change could result in motorists treating cyclists with greater care and provide greater access to compensation for victims.

Sir Keir, who is standing for election in Holborn and St Pancras, told a hustings event in Camden: “I think we should do whatever we can within the law to protect cyclists, but presumptions in the law that somebody’s in the wrong before you’ve even started to work out what the facts are and what’s right are a very dangerous concept.

“And believe you me, once you’ve got them you can borrow them into whatever is the favoured area for everybody else.

“You may well presume liability in relation to cycling. Somebody else will want presumed liability in relation to welfare benefits, etc. We are better having a legal system that starts from a neutral position between the parties before any court or tribunal.”

Earlier in his response to the question on presumed liability, Sir Keir, director of public prosecutions from 2008 to 2013, said he was in favour of any scheme which protected cyclists.

But he added: “There is a problem with any scheme of presumed liability and it’s nothing to do with cycling.

“It is about how you set our justice system because our justice system ought to be evaluating between two competing individuals or bodies what is the fair, right and just outcome.

“Now we’ve fiddled around with presumed liability on a number of fronts both in criminal law and civil law and it nearly always operates an injustice because the presumption applies against someone who actually isn’t in the wrong.

“We have to be really careful with these concepts of presumed liability because what it means is, irrespective as it were of the real position, we’ll presume something to be the position.”

He added: “Once you shift our justice system to a system that’s based on presumptions that somebody is in the wrong – without actually having to demonstrate they’re in the wrong – you have a real difficulty.

“I wouldn’t put it off the agenda. I do think there may be some space here to develop our law and we should give credence to that.

“But we do have to be careful. In some countries it’s edged almost to a situation where the default position is liability for the bigger vehicle without any real opportunity for someone to prove they weren’t in the wrong.”

Sir Keir later said he would be committed to finding a way through the issues but would be against changing default positions of the justice system.

Green Party leader Natalie Bennett, who is also standing for election in Holborn and St Pancras, backed presumed liability and said she did not accept the “slippery slope argument”.

She said: “We are talking about civil liability here – so we’re not talking about anyone’s liberty or criminal cases. We’re talking about a situation if a vulnerable road user is killed or injured by a much larger, more dangerous vehicle they should be entitled to compensation unless it can be clearly shown they were at fault.

“That disparity should be recognised.”

Ms Bennett said she had cycled in France on major open roads, explaining: “You can do it and you don’t feel like you’re taking your life into your hands because actually lorries move out into the other lane to overtake you.

“They don’t squeeze past your knee.”

Ms Bennett recalled an incident in the south west of England when a lorry overtook her but left only a gap of a couple of inches.

Published: Thursday 9th April 2015 by The News Editor

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