Andrew Bird is a solicitor and cyclist, and the man behind www.bicyclelegal.co.uk... AND he's citycycling's latest regular contributor on all things legal that you might need to know, starting with the hot potato that is...
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Strict or proportionate liability
In January Cambridge MP Dr Julian Huppert made a speech in the House of Commons calling for a better deal for cyclists, including a change in how the law deals with compensation for road traffic accidents.
The current position in UK legal jurisdictions is that a road user who wishes to claim compensation for injury or loss resulting from a road traffic accident must prove that the accident was caused by the fault of another. A cyclist injured by a car, for example, must prove on the balance of probabilities that the driver’s negligence caused the accident.
Dr Huppert called for proportionate, or strict, liability to apply instead. The larger road user in an accident would be liable to pay compensation to the smaller road user where they have suffered injury or loss. So, a cyclist would compensate a pedestrian; a car driver would compensate a cyclist; a lorry driver would compensate a car driver.
Strict liability is not the same as absolute liability. Drivers would not always be liable to pay for accidents with cyclists. For example, a driver would not be liable to pay compensation to a cyclist injured by riding into the back of a stationary car.
The idea of strict liability for road traffic accidents is not new. Most EU countries use it already. Nor is the concept of strict liability foreign to UK legal jurisdictions. It is already used, for example, to provide compensation for injuries to consumers from defective products, to employees from defective work equipment and to the general public from runaway animals.
The Cambridge News reports that an RAC spokesman said Dr Huppert was “wrong to seek to establish a hierarchy of the supposed righteous.” While strict liability in the form proposed by Dr Huppert does seek to impose a hierarchy on road users, this is hardly new. The Road Traffic Act 1988 and the Highway Code, which regulate most interactions between road users in the UK, recognises a hierarchy based on the relative vulnerability of road users. Turning lorries can be a hazard to cars; cars emerging from side roads can threaten cyclists; cyclists on pavements may pose a risk to pedestrians.
Strict liability would apply to civil compensation claims, not to criminal proceedings for offences such as dangerous driving. It would simply regulate who pays who following an accident.
An objection to strict liability is the appearance of a presumption of guilt, which does not sound very fair. However, strict liability is not about apportioning blame because fault for an accident is no longer an issue. Moreover, under the current system, a cyclist injured by a car has to prove that the car driver was at fault for the accident to receive compensation. If the cyclist is unable to do so, perhaps due to injuries such as brain damage received in the accident, is that fair?