Case Update: High Court lays down sentencing framework for negligence in road traffic accidents

Summary by Tedric Chai & Ronald JJ Wong

In Tang Ling Lee v Public Prosecutor [2018] SGHC 18, the High Court judge laid down the sentencing framework for road traffic cases under Section 338(b) of the Penal Code. The judge emphasized that it applied only to road traffic cases (at [24]). A flowchart summarizing the sentencing framework is set out here.

The sentencing framework consists of 3 broad sentencing bands on the basis of: (1) the degree of harm caused by the offence; and (2) the culpability of the offender (at [25]).

Degree of harm caused by offence

  1. The degree of harm caused would generally refer to the nature and degree of grievous bodily injury caused to the victim (at [25]).
  2. The period of hospitalisation leave or medical leave would be a relevant consideration insofar as it represents a medical professional’s opinion as to the length of time required for treatment of the injuries and for the victim to resume his daily activities (at [26]).
  3. Nevertheless, the period of hospitalisation or medical leave is a rough-and-ready proxy for the severity of the victim’s injuries at best, as the assessment of time required for treatment and subsequent recovery may vary from case to case and may also depend on an interplay of various other circumstances, including the opinion of the medical professional as well as the personal characteristics of the victim (at [26]).

Degree of culpability of offender

  1. The degree of culpability would generally refer to the degree of relative blameworthiness disclosed by an offender’s actions, and is measured chiefly in relation to the extent and manner of the offender’s involvement in the criminal act (i.e. the offender’s manner of driving) (at [25]).
  2. Factors that the Court will take into account include: (i) the manner of driving, i.e. how dangerous the driving was and the extent of danger to road users posed by the offender’s conduct; and (ii) the circumstances of driving which might have increased the danger to road users during the incident (at [27]).
  3. For (i) the manner of driving, some examples of situations where culpability would be increased include speeding, drink-driving, sleepy driving, driving while under the influence of drugs, driving while using a mobile phone, flouting traffic rules, driving against the flow of traffic or off the road, involvement in a car chase or a racing competition, or exhibiting poor control of the vehicle. These circumstances in relation to the offender’s manner of driving are aggravating due to the increased danger to road users posed by such conduct. (At [28])
  4. For (ii) the circumstances of driving, this would include instances where the offender drives without a licence or while under disqualification. Also, there may be increased risk where the offender drives: (a) during rush hours when the volume of traffic is heavy; (b) within a residential or school zone; (c) a heavy vehicle that is more difficult to control and requires a quicker reaction time; or (d) where he intends to travel a substantial distance to reach his destination. These circumstances may heighten the danger posed to road users. (At [29])
  5. Where some of the culpability-increasing factors arise, it is possible and indeed likely that additional charges may be preferred and proceeded with. In such circumstances, the respective sentences upon conviction ought to be calibrated as appropriate, avoiding loading or double-counting of the culpability-increasing factors. (At [30])

The sentencing framework comprising 3 presumptive sentencing ranges, which applies where the accused person claims trial, is as follows (at [31]):

Category Circumstances Presumptive sentencing range

(excluding an appropriate period of disqualification from driving)

1 Lesser harm and lower culpability Fines
2 Greater harm and lower culpability OR lesser harm and higher culpability One to two weeks’ imprisonment
3 Greater harm and higher culpability More than two weeks’ imprisonment

Presumptive sentencing ranges are merely starting points which seek to guide the exercise of sentencing discretion, and are not rigid or immutable anchors. In the final analysis, the appropriate sentence to be imposed will be the product of a fact-sensitive exercise of discretion, taking into account all the circumstances of the case. (At [33])

With regard to the sentencing framework, the Court will adopt a 2-step inquiry as follows (at [32]):

  • First, the Court should identify the sentencing band within which the offence in question falls, and also where the particular case falls within the applicable presumptive sentencing range, having regard to the twin considerations of harm and culpability, in order to derive the starting point sentence.
  • Second, further adjustments should then be made to take into account the relevant mitigating and aggravating factors, which may take the eventual sentence out of the applicable presumptive sentencing range.

Examples of relevant mitigating factors may include an offender’s timely plea of guilt, stopping to render assistance to the victim(s), a good driving record, and evidence of remorse.

Relevant aggravating factors may include efforts to avoid detection or apprehension, and the existence of similar antecedents which are indicative of persistent or prolonged bad driving.

For Category 1 cases, culpability-increasing factors would either be absent altogether or present only to a very limited extent, thus suggesting negligence to be at the lowest end of the spectrum. The harm occasioned to the victim(s) would generally be characterised by the lack of very serious or permanent injuries. This is often reflected in the victim having undergone a relatively brief duration of hospitalisation and medical leave (or none at all) and minimal surgical procedures (if any). (At [34])

For Category 2 cases, they comprise offences of a higher level of seriousness. These are usually cases where: (a) the harm is at the lower end of the spectrum but the culpability of the offender is moderate to high; or (b) the harm is serious but the culpability of the offender remains low. Where there are two or more culpability-increasing factors or injuries of a more serious or permanent nature and/or which necessitate significant surgical procedures, the offence would generally fall into Category 2. (At [35])

For Category 3 cases, there are both serious injuries and a moderate to high degree of culpability. A case falling within the Category 3 sentencing band would usually feature at least two culpability-increasing factors and injuries of a very serious or permanent nature and/or which necessitate significant surgical procedures. In this connection, serious long-term injuries occasioned to the victim, such as loss of limb, sight or hearing or paralysis in particular, would generally attract the sentencing band in Category 3. (At [36])

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