Most motoring offences are dealt with by magistrates. Maximum penalties are set by law, but the sentences depend on the seriousness of the offence. Other factors such as personal mitigation and an early guilty plea are also taken into account.
Penalty points are essentially 'black marks' on your driving licence, recorded on your electronic driver record with the DVLA, or on your driving licence counterpart if you live in Northern Ireland. They're put there together with details of the offence.
The law sets the maximum and minimum number of points for each offence. If you've committed an offence, you can be offered a fixed penalty that can result in points being added to your electronic record with the DVLA or endorsed on your licence in Northern Ireland. If you've accepted this offer, you'll need to send your licence to the police so that they can update your electronic driver record or endorse your licence with the points. Your licence will then be returned to you.
If you're prosecuted for an endorsable offence, you must go to court with your licence in case you're convicted. The court will tell the DVLA or the DVA in Northern Ireland to record the endorsement.
If you're convicted of more than one endorsable offence on the same occasion, the general rule is that only the offence with the highest number of points will be endorsed.
If you get 12 or more points on your licence within a 3-year period, you're likely to be banned from driving for at least 6 months.
If you're a newly passed driver, you'll be on probation for 2 years. If in that period you get 6 or more points, you'll lose your licence. This means that you'll be a learner driver once more and you'll have to apply and pay for a new provisional licence.
You can be disqualified (banned) for a number of reasons:
- If you're convicted of a driving offence
- If you get 12 or more points within a period of 3 years
If you're convicted of an offence involving an obligatory disqualification (i.e. an offence that results in an immediate ban), you'll be disqualified for at least 12 months (unless there are special reasons otherwise).
The 3-year period starts from the date that the offence was committed. Any penalty point older than 3 years is disregarded. A disqualification erases all penalty points.
Longer minimum periods of disqualification
A longer period of disqualification will apply in the following cases:
1. If you're convicted of manslaughter (or in Scotland, culpable homicide), causing serious injury by dangerous driving and causing death by dangerous or careless driving when under the influence of drink or drugs. The minimum period of disqualification will be 2 years.
2. If you're convicted of any of the following offences twice within a period of 10 years:
- Causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drink or drugs
- Driving or attempting to drive while unfit through drink or drugs
- Driving or attempting to drive while alcohol concentration is above the prescribed limit
- Failing to give a specimen where the offence carries an obligatory ban
- Failing to allow a specimen of blood to be subjected to a laboratory test where the offence carries an obligatory ban
The minimum period of disqualification will be at least 3 years.
3. If you're convicted of an offence that carries an obligatory disqualification and you've already been banned for a period of at least 56 days in the previous 3 years. The minimum period of disqualification will be at least 2 years (unless there are 'special reasons' to change this).
4. If you get 12 or more points within a 3-year period, you're likely to be disqualified for:
- At least 6 months if there is no previous disqualification for a fixed period of 56 days or more
- At least one year if there is one previous disqualification for a fixed period of 56 days or more
- At least 2 years if there is more than one previous disqualification for a fixed period of 56 days or more
If you're experiencing serious money problems, you can apply to reduce the length of the ban.
If you're convicted of any endorsable offence, the court can choose to disqualify you until you pass a test. If the disqualification is obligatory, you'll need to take an extended retest.
If you're disqualified through penalty points, you might also be ordered to retake a driving test; in this case, the extended test applies.
The courts are more likely to order a retest if you're inexperienced, incompetent or infirm, or if the disqualification period is lengthy (i.e. the offender is going to 'off the road' for a long time).
Magistrates can impose an 'interim disqualification' if there is any delay between your conviction and a sentence being passed.
Reducing the period of disqualification
In some cases, you can ask the court to reduce your disqualification period. The court will consider factors such as your behaviour since the disqualification, your character, the offence and any other relevant circumstances. It is less likely to remove a disqualification that was obligatory.
Before you ask the court to consider this, you must have served at least:
- 2 years of the disqualification period if it was for 2-4 years
- Half of the disqualification period if it was for 4-10 years
- 5 years of the disqualification period if it was for 10 years or more
You'll need to write to the court that disqualified you, giving the date of offence, the date of conviction and any information to justify your request. If successful, the court will tell the DVLA and you can then apply to renew your driving licence.
If the court refuses your request, you'll have to wait 3 months before you can ask again.
If you're convicted of a drink-related driving offence, the period of disqualification can be reduced in some cases if you successfully complete a rehabilitation course.
Reapplying for your licence
Up to 56 days before the disqualification period ends, you can apply to theor to return your licence. If you drive without a licence, you'll be committing an offence. It is also an offence to get a licence while you're disqualified.
A community order can include carrying out unpaid work, going to rehabilitation programmes such as alcohol or drug treatment, and following curfew and/or supervision requirements.
Community orders are designed to change your behaviour and to help you make amends, sometimes directly to the victim of the crime or the local community.
A custodial sentence means that you're sent to prison for a set period. Custodial sentences are reserved for the most serious offences.
A custodial sentence can also be imposed if the court believes it's necessary to protect the public. The length of the prison sentence depends on the maximum penalty for the crime and the circumstances of the offence and offender.
Fines account for about 80% of all sentences imposed by magistrates. Maximum fines are set by law. The level for each offence decides the maximum fine for it.
When setting a fine, the magistrates must consider the seriousness of the offence, taking into account your financial circumstances and any mitigating factors that you've put forward. Fines are generally worked out as a percentage of your income within minimum and maximum bands. Although a fine should really be paid immediately, the court can give you time to pay. Usually, the court will set a date by which the total amount must be paid.
The fine is separate from the costs involved in prosecuting you. The magistrates can decide that you must pay all or part of these costs.
The purpose of the Fixed Penalty Notice (FPN) system is to avoid court hearings while ensuring that you are punished and that your licence or electronic driver record is updated to reflect any penalty points.
Most offences can be dealt with by a fixed penalty. They include a number of parking offences (although these are mostly now dealt with by local authorities using penalty charge notices), speeding offences, offences associated with the construction of the vehicle and offences relating to traffic signals.
Normally, the FPN penalty will be a fine of:
- £50, if the offence isn't one that requires penalty points;
- £100, plus 3 points; or
- £300, plus 6 points, for more serious offences such as driving without insurance
When accepting a fixed penalty, you can't negotiate or try to get a more lenient punishment. If you're in any doubt, you have a certain amount of time to consider your options before you accept the order.
FPN given on the spot
An officer in uniform with reason to believe that you've committed a minor offence can give you an FPN on the spot. If you pay the penalty within the suspended enforcement period (at least 21 days), no proceedings can be brought against you.
If the offence carries an obligatory endorsement, the officer can normally only give you an FPN if:
- They are satisfied that, if you were to be convicted, you won't have accumulated enough penalty points to face a possible disqualification; and
- You hand over your licence (and its counterpart in Northern Ireland) for the penalty points to be added either to the counterpart in Northern Ireland or to your electronic driver record in the rest of the UK.
If you don't have your licence with you
If you don't have your licence with you, the officer can give you a provisional FPN and you'll have 7 days to take your licence to a police station. If you're not liable for disqualification, the officer can confirm the provisional FPN as a full FPN and hold on to your licence. If you pay the penalty within the required period, your licence will be returned to you with the details of the offence and any penalty points recorded on the counterpart in Northern Ireland or in your electronic driver record in the rest of the UK.
If you request a hearing before the deadline to pay the penalty, the case might be tried at court.
If fixed penalty is not paid
If you haven't requested a hearing or paid the fixed penalty, you can be made to pay the fixed penalty plus half the amount of that penalty (the 'default amount'). You'll also receive a notice from the court.
You can respond within 21 days with a statutory declaration that you weren't the person issued with the fixed penalty, or that you've given the correct notice for a court hearing, or to offer payment.
FPN attached to vehicle
If an officer, vehicle examiner or traffic warden believes that your vehicle has committed a non-endorseable fixed penalty offence, they can attach an FPN to it.
If you haven't paid the fixed penalty before the deadline and you haven't requested a hearing, the police will send you, as the owner, a notice. In certain circumstances, you can be held responsible for the offence even if you weren't the driver at the time.
If you don't pay the penalty within 21 days, you must provide the police with a statutory statement of ownership either to confirm that you are the owner or, if you aren't, to give information to identify the owner. Alternatively, you can request a hearing for the offence.
If no action has taken place by the deadline, the default amount can be enforced against you (or the owner).
Conditional Offer of a Fixed Penalty
If you're not stopped at the time of the offence (e.g. caught on a speeding camera), you can be sent a notice containing a Conditional Offer of a Fixed Penalty.
If you pay the penalty amount within 28 days, no proceedings will be brought against you. However, if the offence carries any penalty points, you'll need to both pay the penalty and hand in your licence (and, in Northern Ireland, its counterpart) to the police. Once the penalty has been paid, the details of the offence and any penalty points will be endorsed on the counterpart of your licence in Northern Ireland or added to your electronic driver record in the rest of the UK.
If you might be liable to be banned, you can't offer to pay the penalty. In this case, court proceedings will begin.
If you've been found guilty of an offence, you can ask the court for a less severe penalty. This is known as a plea in mitigation.
You can't claim that you didn't commit the offence. Mitigation is concerned with the circumstances of the offence and your character.
1. The circumstances of the offence
You should point out anything that might explain why you committed the offence (e.g. you were responding to what you thought was a genuine emergency or you weren't aware that you were offending), or anything that is in your favour (e.g. you helped the police or you called the emergency services).
2. Your personal circumstances
If applicable, you could point out things such as:
- You've driven for so many years without offending.
- You're in regular employment and you're the family's breadwinner.
- You participate in charitable work.
- Any distressing factors such as bereavement, divorce or loss of employment that could have made you drive in an uncharacteristic manner.
If the offence carries a risk of disqualification, describe the effect it'll have on you, e.g. your employment. Doctors, midwives or salespeople might have a special need for a car. You should say that you regret what happened and you're determined not to offend again.
3. Guilty plea
If you've pleaded guilty at the earliest opportunity, you should mention this because this can reduce the sentence.
A specific type of mitigation is a 'special reason'. This is a term used to refer to the plea that can prevent or reduce a disqualification. The special reasons must:
- Be a mitigating circumstance
- Not be a legal defence to the charge
- Be directly connected with the commission of the offence
- Be one that the court should properly to take into consideration
The situations that the court might accept as a special reason for drink driving are the following:
If you can prove that your drink was laced or spiked and that it was impossible for you to notice, the court might decide against a disqualification. You should present the court with expert evidence to support this claim. The argument is stronger if you were misled into believing that there was no alcohol in the drink.
If your journey was an immediate result of an emergency, for example, because of an accident involving personal injury or an illness, you can claim this to be a special reason. However, a return journey from the hospital after such an emergency won't count. The courts will consider whether you acted responsibly and had no choice but to drive. The magistrates will also consider the amount of alcohol consumed.
This may arise where you've parked your car only to find after you have had a drink that it would be safer to park it elsewhere. The court will sometimes accept an argument that the journey was so short that there was not much chance that you would meet other road users.
The situations that the court can accept as a special reason for speeding, and careless and dangerous driving are the following:
If you had to take a seriously ill person to hospital and you're caught speeding, the court might accept this made it necessary to drive above the speed limit.
If a police driver or an emergency service driver ignores traffic signals and causes an accident in order to perform their duty, this might be accepted as a special reason for careless and dangerous driving.