Should’ve Gone to Barnard Castle: Dominic Cummings faces private prosecution for driving offence

July 9, 2020

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2 min read

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What's going on here?

After his alleged breach of lockdown rules was excused by the police and the government, Dominic Cummings is now facing the prospect of a private prosecution for the alleged road traffic offence of driving to Barnard Castle with defective eyesight.

What does this mean?

Cummings stated during a press conference that, while in Durham during the peak of the coronavirus outbreak, he drove to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight, which “seemed to have been affected” by the virus. He was not publicly prosecuted for breaching lockdown rules nor for dangerous driving.

James Parry and Kate Welch of Parry & Welch Solicitors have initiated a private prosecution for the alleged driving offence. The Merseyside-based solicitors stated that Cummings drove “without reasonable consideration to other road users in circumstances where he knew or believed his eyesight was impaired” and “where he was unsure he was capable of driving safely”. Welch added: “There is supposed to be equality before the law in this country. The interests of justice and public safety require this matter to be heard by a court”.

Crowdfunding efforts have been launched by members of the public to raise the money necessary for a private prosecution of Cummings’ alleged breach of lockdown rules.

What's the big picture effect?

In most countries, criminal prosecutions are a monopoly of the state. This story highlights an unusual and contentious aspect of the UK legal system: the right to bring a private prosecution.

A private prosecution acts as a means for a private individual or organisation to enforce the law, uphold justice and establish accountability by initiating criminal proceedings where the state has decided not to. Former chief Crown Prosecutor Nazir Afzal, who has publicly supported a crowdfunding initiative to privately prosecute Cummings, said: “There has to be consequences for [alleged] law-breaking, otherwise the public lose confidence in those meant to enforce the law and lose trust in the law itself”. Moreover, these prosecutions give the pursuer more control and are generally dealt with more quickly and efficiently than those pursued by the state.

However, private prosecutions are rare because they are typically too expensive for ordinary citizens to pursue. They are traditionally reserved for wealthy individuals and organisations (such as law firms). However, the growth of online crowdfunding has increased their viability for ordinary citizens. Costs vary widely. Law firm estimates range from £5,000 to £10,000, whereas crowdfunding targets can reach six figures. Last year, Marcus Ball crowdfunded nearly £350,000 to bring a private prosecution against Boris Johnson for allegedly lying during the 2016 EU referendum campaign. However, the High Court ultimately threw the case out. Check out our report on that here. Although legal aid is not available, reasonable costs can be recovered from the state.

Peterlee Magistrates’ Court will decide whether to proceed with Parry and Welch’s private prosecution and issue a summons to be served on Cummings. At present, it appears unlikely that the crowdfunding efforts will raise sufficient funds to pursue a private prosecution for the alleged breach of lockdown rules. This begs the question: does justice favour the wealthy?

Report written by Isobel Deane

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