If you watch Traffic Cops on a regular basis, you will no doubt be shocked by the number of drivers who are arrested for driving without a licence, or for driving without valid insurance. In this article, we look at the consequences faced by such drivers. As we will see, if death or serious injury is caused, the consequences can be particularly severe.
1. Using, or causing or permitting to be used, a motor vehicle without insurance
You commit an offence under s143 Road Traffic Act 1988 (“RTA 1988”) if you use a motor vehicle on a road or other public place if it is not covered by a policy of insurance. It is also an offence to cause or permit another person to commit this offence. It is important to note that this offence can be committed in “public places” such as car parks and access roads open to the public as well as on the public highway.
Section 145 RTA 1988 sets out what must be covered by the insurance policy for it to satisfy s143. This is a very wordy section, however the practical consequence is that any third party or comprehensive insurance policy obtained from a reputable insurance company will be sufficient.
It is vital to note that the offence is committed regardless of the driver’s knowledge: the driver can still be convicted even if he honestly believed he possessed a valid insurance policy at the relevant time.
When proving this offence in court, once the prosecution has accused the driver of using the vehicle without insurance, it is for the driver to prove that he had a valid policy of insurance at the relevant time. This is usually done by the production of an insurance certificate. Once this has been done, the burden then shifts to the prosecution who have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the policy was invalid.
Interestingly, a policy is valid for the purposes of s143 even if it was obtained by fraud (or non-disclosure of material facts) unless the insurer has given notice that the policy has been avoided. However, a policy may be invalid for the purposes of s143 if its terms are breached (this will depend on the individual policy), or if the driver uses the vehicle beyond the scope of the policy. Using a vehicle for business use when it is only insured for social domestic and pleasure use is a classic example of using a vehicle beyond the scope of the policy.
There is a very specific statutory defence contained within s143(3) RTA 1988 which is aimed at users of company cars. It is a full defence if it can be shown that (a) the vehicle did not belong to the driver (whether by way or hire, loan, or otherwise); (b) that the vehicle was being used by the driver in the course of his employment; and (c) that the driver neither knew nor had reason to believe that he was not insured.
Looking towards sentences, an uninsured driver can be disqualified from driving (discretionary), but must be given 6-8 penalty points if not disqualified. The driver can also be fined any sum the court sees fit. Alternatively, a fixed penalty of £300 is available in some cases.
It should also be noted that if you have an accident whilst uninsured, you could suffer financial consequences extending far beyond the reach of the criminal law. If you are found negligent in a civil court, not only would you need to replace the claimant’s damaged vehicle, but you would need to compensate them for their injuries as well. It is not uncommon for compensation in serious personal injury arising from road traffic accidents to extend well into the millions. When viewed in these terms, the price of a comprehensive insurance policy suddenly seems like very good value.
It should be noted that it is also an offence to simply keep a motor vehicle without insurance (s144A RTA 1988) regardless of whether it is actually used.
2. Driving otherwise than in accordance with a licence
Under s87 RTA 1988 it is an offence to drive on a road a motor vehicle of any description without the correct licence. It is also an offence to cause or permit another person to commit the offence.
Proof is approached in the same way as it is for using a vehicle without insurance: the burden is on the driver to prove that he was licensed (by producing his licence), and it is then for the prosecution to prove that the licence is invalid or does not permit the driver to drive the relevant vehicle.
This offence applies equally to those who have never passed their driving test as it does to those who have passed a test but are driving a different category of vehicle. (For example, the driver of an HGV who has passed a car driving test but has not passed an HGV test.) Interestingly, this offence is also committed where a learner driver (aged 17 or over) is driving a vehicle without displaying L plates and/or without being supervised. Underage driving is also covered by this provision, as is driving without wearing glasses or contact lenses where this is required by the licence.
Similarly to using a vehicle without insurance, a driver’s honest belief that he did hold a valid license is irrelevant for the purposes of this offence.
In terms of sentence, a level 3 fine (up to £1000) can be ordered, and in some cases there is a possibility of discretionary disqualification or endorsement with 3-6 penalty points. A fixed penalty of £100 can also be issued in certain situations.
3. Causing Death by Driving (Unlicensed or Uninsured drivers)
Under s3ZB RTA 1988, a driver commits an offence if he causes the death of another person by driving a motor vehicle on a road and, at the same time, is committing an offence under either s87(1) RTA 1988 (driving without a licence) or s143 RTA 1988 (driving without insurance).
Importantly, there is no requirement for the prosecution to prove that the defendant’s driving was careless or dangerous. All that needs to be proven is that there was “at least some act or omission in the control of the case, which involves some element of fault […] which contributes in some more than minimal way to the death”. Therefore, a defendant whose driving was in all respects ‘perfect’ at the relevant time cannot be convicted. However, if there is some element of the defendant’s driving that can be criticised (for example, a breach of the highway code which, in all the circumstances, is not serious enough to amount to careless driving), and this element of the driving can be said to have played a not insignificant role in causing the death, there is likely to be a high chance of conviction.
A driver convicted of this offence can receive up to 2 years imprisonment if tried in the Crown Court, as well as obligatory disqualification or endorsement. This may seem harsh because of the low ‘fault’ threshold, however it is suggested that the lack of insurance and/or valid licence has the effect of amplifying the seriousness of the offence such as to warrant such a high sentence.
As is emphasised by the above, it is vitally important to check that all your documents are in order before taking to the road. The law does not care if you honestly believed you were entitled to drive, or if you honestly believed that you held valid insurance, so it is always best to take the time to read and understand the terms of your insurance policy, and your driving licence, to avoid any unwelcome surprises.
However, if you do fall foul of these offences, it is not always the end of the road. In September 2014, in the case of R v T, we helped a driver (who was accused in the Crown Court of obtaining insurance by using a false driving licence) avoid disqualification and imprisonment. This shows what a big difference representation from an experienced Road Law Barrister can make – please do not hesitate to contact us for your free consultation.
The contents of this article should not be relied upon in isolation. Each case is fact specific and this article should not be treated as legal advice or as a substitute for legal advice.
 Lyons v May  2 All ER 1062
 DPP v Kavaz  RTR 40
 Durrant v MacLaren  2 Lloyds Rep 70
 See for example DPP v Whittaker  EWHC 1850 (Admin)
 R v Hughes  1 WLR 2461 (Supreme Court) at