2018 May

Going to Court in South Australia

On March 23rd 2018, our South Australian co-ordinator and National Vice-President Sundance Bilson-Thompson was in court in Adelaide challenging a bike helmet fine.

Those of you who have listened to one of Sundance’s presentations will know what a good grasp he has of the statistics and arguments around bike helmet law.

Although the Magistrate and the Prosecutor were clearly impressed with his defence, absurd add-on costs made his victory meaningless. The costs imposed by the Court were paid for out of our Court fighting fund https://www.gofundme.com/changehelmetlaw.

On March 23rd I went to court to fight a fine I’d received for failure to wear a bike helmet. My strategy was to appeal to section 15 of the Criminal Law Sentencing Act, which states that if a defendant is found guilty, the magistrate or judge can take several steps including dismiss the fine and record no conviction if they deem the offence to be “trivial”. I intended to argue that as the health benefits of regular cycling outweigh the injury risks about ten to one, my actions were actually beneficial to society and hence should be judge as trivial. I prepared a brief document referencing the health studies which proved this.

When I got to the stand, it was actually the police prosecutor who was most sympathetic to my case. Failure to wear a helmet is what’s called a “strict liability offence”, meaning it’s basically a matter of fact that you did it, or you didn’t. There are no real grades of technicality (such as how responsible you are in a manslaughter case, for example). The magistrate didn’t really seem to pay much attention to the argument I was making about health benefits, but the police prosecutor actually said that the point I was making was interesting, and they’d be happy with a minimal fine and no recorded conviction. So the fine was dropped from $102 to $20. Not a bad outcome, as moral victories go.

Now here’s the rub; in South Australia we have this strange beast called the victims of Crime Compensation levy, which came to $60 (hence the original fine was $162), even though failing to wear a helmet is a victimless crime. And it turns out that simply by taking the case to court, the VoCC goes up automatically to $160, and that’s pat of an act of parliament which the courts can’t do anything about. Plus there was $100 in court fees added to the total. Meaning that after starting with a $162 expiation fee, presenting a case which impressed the prosecution, and getting the actual fine itself dropped from $102 to $20, I walked away from court being stung for $280. That’s right, fourteen times the actual fine itself!

So what are the take-home messages from this experience? Firstly, I think the argument itself, that you’re doing good for society by getting exercise, was good. The fine itself was reduced by over 80% as a result. If this approach was tried in a different state, one without a Victims of Crime levy, it could be an effective way of reducing your fine considerably.

Also, the magistrate seemed to interpret “trivial”, in regard to section 15 of the criminal law sentencing act, as a trivial instance of the offence in question, not as a trivial ofence in the context of all crimes. That means a minor case of assault or theft could be viewed more leniently than a victimless act like riding a bike without a helmet on a main road. So if anyone else wants to try appealing to this particular act of the law, I’d say try it if you’re booked on a quiet road or off-road path and argue that the safety of the location makes your offence trivial.

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