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Accidents on Private Land: What Are my Rights?

Driving laws in the UK apply to those using a vehicle on a road or other public place. The term ‘road’ is defined by the Road Traffic Regulations Act as “any length of highway or other road to which the public has access.” Similarly, a public place is considered to be somewhere that members of the public have access to such as, for example, a public car park operated by a private firm.

If a serious incident occurs on a public road or place then those involved are obliged by law to inform the police and, if found to be responsible, could face criminal prosecution under the Road Traffic Act. Sentences for driving offences can be anywhere up to 14 years in prison and may also include a lengthy driving ban or hefty fine. While most other crimes committed on private land, such as theft or assault, can be prosecuted by the CPS, the same cannot be said for driving offences. A legal loophole which must be closed.

Calls for parity have been made before and were repeated recently following an inquest into the death of 22-month-old Pearl Black in Wales. Pearl was walking to the park with her father and brother when a Range Rover, which was parked on private land, rolled backwards down a slope and hit a garden wall, which fell on top of the toddler who sadly died. The court was told the handbrake had not been sufficiently applied and the gear lever had been left between park and reverse, effectively putting the automatic vehicle into neutral. Coroner Andrew Barkley recorded a verdict of accidental death but was clear in his opinion that the tragedy was one of “driver error.”

Pearl’s parents are campaigning for a change in the law so incidents that happen on public or private land are treated the same, regardless of where they occur. It echoes calls made by the parents of Harry Whitlam who was killed when he was crushed by a trailer on private farmland in 2013. The driver was almost three times over the legal alcohol limit at the time but evaded criminal prosecution because of where the incident took place. He was jailed three years later following a private prosecution brought by the Health and Safety Executive but was sentenced to under 18 months, far below what could be expected if it had happened on public land. His parents have called for a “Whitlam’s Law” to replace what we have at present, a loophole which only undermines the deterrent effect the law should have for those who drive in a reckless or dangerous way.

Pearl’s parents are campaigning for a change in the law so incidents that happen on public or private land are treated the same, regardless of where they occur. It echoes calls made by the parents of Harry Whitlam who was killed when he was crushed by a trailer on private farmland in 2013. The driver was almost three times over the legal alcohol limit at the time but evaded criminal prosecution because of where the incident took place. He was jailed three years later following a private prosecution brought by the Health and Safety Executive but was sentenced to under 18 months, far below what could be expected if it had happened on public land. His parents have called for a “Whitlam’s Law” to replace what we have at present, a loophole which only undermines the deterrent effect the law should have for those who drive in a reckless or dangerous way.

Your rights

As the law currently stands if you are involved in an incident involving a vehicle on private land – or indeed if the action which led to the incident was on private land – those responsible are unlikely to face criminal prosecution. Exceptions to this are a charge of “wanton or furious driving” under the Offences Against the Persons Act, but again this carries only a two-year maximum sentence.

The CPS may also consider a charge of gross negligence manslaughter if the person is found to have been grossly negligent in upholding their duty of care. I act for Pearl’s family and believe this is appropriate in this case, which is why I am strongly urging the CPS to review its decision. The vehicle was left on a slope leading straight down to a main road. The gearbox was in neutral and the handbrake was not properly on, both clearly in breach of the Highway Code. My view is it should have been obvious to any driver leaving a two-and-a-half tonne vehicle in such a dangerous place that if it rolled away, death or serious injury to pedestrians was entirely foreseeable.

As with the case of Harry Whitlam, a private prosecution may be possible by the Health and Safety Executive if clear breaches of health and safety are identified. The other route is a civil claim, which at present is the only route open to many in seeking justice for what has happened to them.

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