Two motorists say human rights are being breached - and their case in Strasbourg this week could affect millions
legal affairs correspondent
Sunday September 24, 2006
The controversy over speed cameras will be reignited this week with a legal challenge that could overturn the government's ability to raise millions of pounds in traffic fines each year.
The European Court in Strasbourg will hear evidence that UK motorists' rights are being undermined by anti-speeding laws. Senior human rights judges will be told that existing laws - which require vehicle owners to disclose who was driving at the time the vehicle was pictured by a speed camera - breach a fundamental tenet of British justice, namely the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial.
If the challenge, brought by the human rights group Liberty against the British government, is successful then it would seriously impair the usefulness of Britain's 6,000 roadside cameras in catching speeding motorists. Lawyers for Liberty claim that an individual's 'right to silence' is a vital cornerstone of the law.
Last year, 2 million drivers were caught by speed cameras, resulting in fines of around £120m. Campaigners claim many drivers are penalised for momentary lapses of concentration and that the sums generated by speed camera fines are essentially a 'hidden tax' against Britain's 34 million motorists.
Edmund King, executive director of the RAC Foundation, said: 'This is a high-profile, important case whose outcome may affect millions [of people].'
At the hearing on Wednesday, 17 judges inside the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights will be told that motorists caught speeding by camera have an expectation to be protected by their right to silence.
The case centres on two motorists who objected to their fines. Judges will be told that a vintage Alvis belonging to Idris Francis, 66, was photographed being driven at 47mph in a 30mph area in Surrey in June 2001.
Francis, a retired company director of West Meon, Hampshire, refused to say who was driving and was fined £750 with £250 costs and three penalty points. He complains that being compelled to provide evidence of the offence he was suspected of having committed infringed his right not to incriminate himself.
His 1938 Alvis Speed 25, which was caught on the speed camera, has appeared in the Ruth Rendell Mysteries television series and was driven by Nigel Havers in The Charmer. Whether Francis will drive it to Strasbourg for this week's hearing has yet to be decided.
The judges will also consider the case of Gerard O'Halloran, 72, from London, who admitted driving a car at 69mph on the M11 in Essex where a temporary speed limit restricted vehicles to 40mph. He later tried to have his statement excluded but was fined £100 for speeding with £150 costs and six penalty points.
O'Halloran claims that he was convicted because of a statement he made under threat of a penalty similar to that for the speeding offence.
James Welch, legal director for Liberty, said it was essential that the laws were clarified to protect the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial. Welch added: 'Clearly there is no human right which allows drivers to travel over legal speed limits.
'Rather, the principle we are defending is that no one should be forced to convict himself by his own mouth under threat of criminal sanction. Unless we are willing to overlook 300 years of common law, motorists too must have a fair trial in which they are innocent until proven guilty'.'
Campaigners argue that the UK is one of the most difficult countries in Europe in which to maintain a clean driving licence. Nearly a million motorists are on the brink of a ban because they have racked up penalty points, a recent study found. Experts predict that if the challenge to section 172 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 is successful, the police's power to use cameras to catch speeding drivers will be severely curtailed.
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