Not Saussure

January 7, 2007

On-the-spot fines

Filed under: Law, UK — notsaussure @ 8:26 pm

Alarming report in the Sunday Telegraph about on-the-spot fines (Penalty Notices for Disorder, or PNDs) as an alternative to court proceedings and how widespread and apparently ineffective they are.

I have to take issue, though, with one bit of the report; they start with the alarming story of how

two police officers were deeply concerned when they came across an apparently distressed and disorientated woman in Bradford city centre at 8.20pm on a busy Friday evening. The 31-year-old recounted how she had been brutally raped by a man who was still in his car at the scene of the crime.

The male officers were determined not to let the assailant get away. They moved in swiftly to arrest the man, taking him to Bradford police station, while the woman was treated at Bradford Royal Infirmary. Within hours, a full-scale rape investigation team was poring over the details of the seemingly monstrous crime.

Yet as the woman re-told the account of her supposed ordeal, detectives noticed inconsistencies in her story and were puzzled when she claimed she was too traumatised to undergo a medical examination. Eventually, the police challenged her story and she admitted she had made it up.

The bemused man, who could have been jailed for life if the woman’s account had been believed, was released. If brought to court, the woman could have been jailed for up to six months for falsely crying rape. If she had lied under oath, she could also have faced the more serious charges of perjury and perverting the course of justice, which carry seven years and life respectively.

I agree that it seems a completely inappropriate use of a PND, but not quite for the reasons the Telegraph suggests. First, they’re over-egging the pudding rather — yes, if she’d persisted in her story and if he’d been charged and if she’d lied on oath then, yes, she would have faced very serious charges. But she didn’t, so she didn’t.

As it is, she faced charges of wasting police time (as opposed to ‘crying rape’, as the Telegraph rather inaccurately calls it) so long as the Director of Public Prosecutions gave his permission. This carries a maximum penalty of a level 4 fine (£2,500) or 6 months, so it’s quite serious, and it certainly seems a far more appropriate charge than Section 5 of the Public Order Act (‘threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour or disorderly behaviour… within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress’). It’s highly unlikely, though, that she would have received the maximum penalty, particularly if she immediately pleaded guilty, expressed genuine remorse and so on.

I’d be interested to know what caused her distress and disorientation — was she drunk, or has she got psychiatric problems or what? Which brings me to my second point; whatever the reason, the best people to deal with the matter would certainly have been the magistrates, who are certainly better placed to take a dispassionate look at the circumstances and the best disposal for the young woman than were annoyed and overworked police officers.

It has to be said, though, that bringing the case to trial would have been very expensive, both in terms of case preparation (the papers would have to go to the DPP, remember) and police time. How much are people prepared to pay for such incidents, and the others — false 999 calls, minor shoplifting and the like — to be prosecuted, and how many more police are they willing to pay for to deal with the extra workload?

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