Charity by extortion
Should speeding motorists pay off the victims of other people's crimes?
The UK Home Office proudly boasts that it has ‘invested £14million over the next three years to tackle domestic violence’ (1). Very worthy, I’m sure you’ll agree. It’s just that the word ‘investment’ tends to imply that the government would like to see a return on its outlay and, lo and behold, motorists are coming to the rescue.
Well, at least that’s how motoring organisations saw it earlier this month, with drivers’ groups – well used to whining about the money that the Treasury raises from them in taxation and running costs – complaining that they are being asked to foot the bill.
Motorists’ hackles have been raised by the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill. Amendments have just been rejected, paving the way for a legislative surcharge to be added to the fines for motoring offences. This additional money added to the fine total will go into a pot to pay to victims of domestic abuse, among other things. So it could be argued that teenagers receiving a clip across the ear from their dads for getting a speeding ticket may actually benefit from the scheme.
Regularly referred to as the ‘victim levy’, actually it will be appended to penalties for anything from burglary to assault and is not a targeted attack on motorists. In Canada, for example, an extra $10 is levied on the $65 fine for not wearing a cycle helmet (while cycling).
When the law is enacted in the UK, the court must order an offender to pay a surcharge, and only if that person is unable to pay or is due to receive a compensation order can the surcharge be reduced ‘if necessary to nil’. Assumed to be in the region of £5 for speeding and £10 for driving without insurance, these yet to be determined sums are intended to compensate – to make recompense – for other peoples’ crimes.
Motorists are rightly aggrieved at this ‘victim levy’, but they would do well to recognise that the logic of this scheme lies in the much-vaunted victim-centred justice campaigns of recent years. In many criminal cases now, instead of offenders receiving a punishment they are now required to somehow make amends for their actions. The victim levy is the logical extension of restorative justice, where offenders are asked to put something back into society. The victim levy is therefore charitable work by extortion.
However, given that the Home Office document includes ‘financial abuse’ among its definitions of domestic violence (2), maybe motorists feeling unfairly penalised could use the legislation to defend themselves against the trauma of prosecution.
Austin Williams is director of the Future Cities Project and is chairing a debate on ‘Civil Society and The City’ at the Bartlett School of Architecture, London, on 30 November 2004. See here for more details.
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