Driving tests

Six times when a driver might need a lawyer

Being able to drive a vehicle is a privilege and not a right. This is because driving is a serious matter that requires the utmost care for yourself and others around you. Being licensed to drive requires proper training and the appropriate driver licence. Drivers need to understand when disaster can strike and what to do about it. However, the law doesn’t require you to drive to perfection. It recognises that accidents do happen and that unexpected circumstances can occur and provides a framework for punishments based on the severity of the incident. Even when a driver makes a mistake, a case may still be able to be defended or to have it reduced to a lesser charge.

The main six events for which you may choose to engage a lawyer are:

1. Accidents

We are fortunate in New Zealand that it’s unlikely you’ll need a lawyer if you have a minor accident. ACC covers the process and makes for a non-litigious environment where the insurance companies can duke it out. If you’re in another country, however, you’ll probably need a lawyer, whether you are at fault or the victim of someone else’s reckless driving. Things like evidence and court proceedings are made easier with the assistance of legal guidance. Accidents are the most common time that people decide to get a lawyer because the incident could be in question to which party was responsible.

Depending on the country you’re in, you may need to answer a civil claim as well as a criminal claim.

There are scenarios where people deliberately cause accidents and make it look like you caused it so that they can claim on your insurance.

2. Parking violations

Parking violations are common, and most of the time they are simply paid out-of-pocket to cover the minimal fee, but in other cases, it becomes trickier. Parking in a reserved parking space could result in your car being towed, clamped and/or you receiving a hefty fine. A lawyer may find a way to argue your case.

These issues could be a misidentified spot with no clear markings or signs to indicate that it is prohibited. When this is the case, a lawyer can help find evidence on your behalf that you were not aware of the limitations and make a case that you should not be punished for a mistake from someone else.

3. Impaired driving (drugs and alcohol)

Impaired driving is a tricky subject to tackle. A criminal conviction for drink driving stays on your record forever; some drink driving convictions come with prison time, too. On one hand, it is against the law to be driving while under the influence, but on the other hand, you do need a lawyer to protect you even if you were in the wrong. You can pick a specialist lawyer such as Road Legal in New Zealand or FighterLaw.com in the USA. But you might want to start by seeking community or free advice such as from the Community Law (NZ) or Find Law (Australia) if your budget is tight.

A lawyer will provide assistance to protect from self-incrimination, reduce the prospect of jail time or lessen the jail sentence, and many other ways of helping a motorist in this tricky situation. While the driver may be in the wrong, the lawyer will argue mitigating circumstances so that the judge can decide on an appropriate punishment. They can also argue for a limited licence rather than a full disqualification, for example.

4. Reckless, dangerous and careless driving

Speeding, sustained loss of traction and driving without due care and attention are all examples of disobeying the designated rules of the road. It’s unlikely you’ll get any benefit from a lawyer for low-level speeding offences as it’s very difficult and expensive to argue against them. A lawyer is more useful if you have been caught at a speed which would result in your vehicle being impounded and/or you losing your licence.

Speeding is difficult to defend against because it is the driver’s word versus the word of the officer who is likely to have calibrated technology that provided a reading. The speed gun will determine how fast a driver was going but a lawyer is still needed to dispute any potential claims that could be false. A lawyer can defend their client with claims about their lack of speeding incidents or tickets, which bodes well for their character defence. There may also be issues with the location the speeding was detected.

Sustained loss of traction is hard to defend against seeing as most newer vehicles have traction control and the evidence will be the rubber you leave on the tarmac. The most common prosecution here is for people doing burnouts.

Driving without due care and attention might include you side-swiping another vehicle, forcing a vehicle to take evasive action, and other indiscretions. Again, as with driving under the influence, a lawyer will argue your case if there are mitigating factors, and will advise you if police are attempting to charge you without sufficient evidence.

5. Overdue parking tickets

Parking tickets that are not paid within the mandatory time limit the will accumulate interest and additional fines. After not paying tickets within the mandatory timeframe, a motorist may be required to attend a court hearing about their unpaid tickets. 

Overdue parking tickets are an all-too-common problem as people simply forget about the ticket (or ignore it hoping it will go away). Again, if there are mitigating factors, you may be able to win your case, but it’ll probably just as a matter of principle rather than you coming out cash-positive.

6. Insurance claims

With regard to accidents, insurance can be a lifesaver. Getting into an accident, even a minor one can end up costing thousands. Making an insurance claim is the best way to cover the damage so a car can be legally roadworthy once again. Insurance claims can be turned down by the provider. They need sufficient evidence of the damage and the incident in question which is an obvious step that needs to be followed, but if it is turned down it is useful to bring a lawyer on board to help deal with the insurance company. It may also be useful to hire a lawyer for representation when an insurance quote from another party involved in an accident appears too high which seems unreasonable, wherein a lawyer will argue on behalf of the motorist that this quote is unrealistic.

The ultimate purpose of hiring a lawyer is to successfully defend an action against you whether justified or wrongful. While a lawyer may not be able to do this all the time, they will frequently achieve a reduced impact on your life or your finances by arguing in your favour. Sometimes you may not end up better off financially (lawyers are expensive) but it might mean that you don’t have to live with a criminal record.

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Darren is a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists and the NZ Motoring Writers' Guild

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