Having been a practising solicitor for over 16 years, I like to think that I have seen my fair share of quirky cases. But imagine my surprise when I was recently asked to represent a severely disabled man who was being charged with drink driving while on his mobility scooter.
I joined the case late in the day. When I met the client he had already been charged with the offense and had attended court and ultimately pleaded guilty to a charge of driving a mechanically propelled vehicle whilst unfit through drink.
However, when the magistrates came to sentence him, they had to consider a compulsory disqualification which would (if one follows the logic that a mobility scooter is a mechanically propelled vehicle under the Road Traffic Act 1988), have included banning him from driving his mobility scooter. The magistrates were concerned of the obvious exceptional hardship that this would cause the client and adjourned sentencing to consider whether this could be avoided.
It was at this stage that I was asked to represent the client and had to do some research to find out how, if at all, I could help them.
Something didn't sit well with me. A disqualification would be harsher for a disabled person in that their mobility scooter is like their legs. An able bodied person would be banned from driving but not banned from using their legs. Why should the penalty for this offence (a compulsory disqualification, fine and costs) be harsher for a disabled person when compared to that of an able bodied person?
The issue appeared to go right through the heart of our disability discrimination laws. It appeared to be more like a clear human rights matter to me so my research therefore concentrated on these issues. But I didn't find anything to answer my questions when I used these search terms.
Then it occurred to me that I was looking at this issue from all the wrong angles. When I aimed my research with the disability in mind, I managed to find legislation which said that not only should my client not be disqualified for this offence, but that it was unlawful to prosecute him under s4 of the Road Traffic Act (RTA) 1988 which is the source of the offence as described above.
I also found that under law, a mobility scooter is an invalid carriage which excluded it from traditional drink driving rules. I then found a related law which stated that an invalid carriage complying with the prescribed requirements and being used in accordance with the prescribed conditions, is not, in fact, considered as a motor-vehicle under the RTA 1988 and that s.1-4 does not apply. This means that a charge under s.5 of the RTA 1988 concerning motor-vehicles (i.e. drink driving) does not apply in this case nor does any charge under ss.1-4 of the same Act.
The prescribed requirements and conditions relate to the weight and maximum speed of the scooter and in my clients case his scooter met with the requirements and in fact most mobility scooters we see in the street would meet the requirements.
So not only should my client not have been charged with an offence, but he should never have been arrested and breathalysed. It is akin to stopping and breathalysing someone for walking home drunk.
Through subsequent research I found that the facts of my client's case were very rare. I could only find four other similar cases in the UK, two of which had pleaded guilty and the other two had their cases withdrawn. One of the guilty pleas resulted in the court imposing a disqualification, except for the mobility scooter, which I don't think the court had the legal authority to do, or none that I could find anyway.
Needless to say my client was delighted that I managed to avoid him getting an unnecessary criminal conviction. I accept that mobility scooters can be dangerous and should be treated with caution, but the solution is not to target people without lawful authority, but to perhaps lobby one's local MP to get the law changed.
Working on this particular case reinforced my practical approach to the law: good research and a belief in justice and fairness for all.