15 February 2012
While commuting to work on my bicycle one morning about a year ago, I was hit by a car on a sharp bend in the road. I was on the inside of the curve and collided with a motorist who was cutting the corner in the opposite direction. I suffered a few bruises but nothing serious.
We exchanged details at the scene and, although the lady who hit me was upfront about not having seen me, she was unwilling to accept responsibility for the accident. After ascertaining that I was OK, she was most concerned about the extensive damage to her car.
Meanwhile, I was determined that she should cover the cost of the damage to my bicycle. I had been wearing a high-visibility jacket and felt that I was absolutely not at fault. It therefore seemed unfair that I should have to pay for the repairs to my bike.
I declined the offer of a lift and instead walked the remaining distance to my work place, about half an hour on foot. I stopped at the police station to pick up an accident report form (form 207, "Road Accident Collision/Accident"), which is a long questionnaire that must be returned within 24 hours.
The self-reporting form must be completed with all the particulars of the accident, including the exact location, the details of those involved and any witnesses etc. There's also space to write a description of what happened and draw a plan of the accident.
I filed the report on the following day and took my bike in for repairs, which ended up costing £122.96 and taking one week to complete. The crank set was a write-off and so were the pedals. Indeed, the one on the right was torn off in the impact and embedded in to the car's front wheel arch.
I called the lady after collecting my bike to try and recover the costs from her. However, she was clearly disinterested and instead suggested that I compensate her for the damage to her car, namely a replacement wing mirror and window repairs. She also revealed that her friend had been driving behind her and would submit a witness statement claiming that I had "steered in to her".
I returned to the bike shop, Cycle Surgery, who were nice enough to write-up a letter for me on headed paper. They highlighted that the damage was on the right hand side of the bike, rather than the front, that both wheels were still true and that the frame and fork showed no signs of impact.
Three weeks after the accident, I finally received a letter from the police, explaining that they would take no further action. This is the standard response in cases where they feel they do not have enough evidence to prosecute, usually due to a lack of independent witnesses.
Crucially, as highlighted in their letter, "the decision taken does not affect any civil action you may wish to initiate". The reason for this is simple: In a criminal case, initiated by the police, the standard of proof must be "beyond reasonable doubt", which is not possible without strong evidence. However, in a civil case, the standard of proof is simply on "the balance of probabilities".
I got back in touch with the police to request the driver's address, which they provided by post. Under section 35 of the Data Protection Act 1998, they must disclose this information for the purpose of any legal proceedings (including prospective legal proceedings).
Then I wrote a concise letter to the lady explaining that "it is apparent that court action may be necessary" and enclosed copies of my repair bills (£120), as well as travel expenses for the period my bike was undergoing repairs (£20). I requested payment of the total sum within 28 days.
Within days, she wrote back. A simple two-line paragraph informing me that she had discussed this with the police and "no further action needs to be taken". She did not seem to grasp that I was now taking civil action, which does not involve the police.
Several months went by before I found the time and energy to pursue matters. After all, I had hoped not to take things this far. In mid-September, I gave the lady one more chance to pay up, by sending a follow-up letter with a further 14 days in which to pay.
I got back another vague response; she was "surprised to see [me] pursuing the matter" and was "prepared not to take this matter further". So in October, I signed-up to Money Claim Online and began my small claim for compensation.
Money Claim Online is a Government service introduced in 2002 to cut the administrative workloads of small claims for money. The system is automated and allows you to issue court proceedings against another individual or company, up to £100,000.
There is a £25 court fee for starting a claim, although this is added to the total amount claimed. So my claim was now for £165 and the defendant was given 14 days in which to respond. She promptly did and chose to defend the claim, although did not put in a counter-claim.
The vast majority of claims made through Money Claim Online go undefended, with the defendant paying the claimant directly. However, when a defence is filed (as by the lady), the defence papers are forwarded to the claimant (me) and a judge is appointed to consider the statements and allocate the case to one of the three county courts tracks: small claims (up to £5,000), fast track or multi-track.
Suitable cases will then be referred for mediation, although this is not applied to road traffic collisions. So our case would progress to the court room, and a hearing fee was also payable (another £25), increasing my total claim to £190. This is refunded if the case is settled up to one week before the court date.
It seems that my driver finally woke up to the court case upon receiving her invitation to the hearing. She called me up to try and resolve the matter. I told her that I would settle for £100, saving her almost half, but strangely she suggested that I contribute to her repairs if I drop the case (she had an estimate for £1,300). As I was the claimant and she was not counter-claiming, this was clearly a non-starter.
Finally, after 20 long minutes on the phone, she proposed paying me £30 "for my pedal" and leaving the matter at that. I refused this but told her to reflect on my offer and contact me by text message should she decide to accept my request for £100. She never did and so to court we went, six weeks later.
Ahead of the hearing, each party must send a copy of all the evidence they intend to rely on to the court, as well as to each other. I submitted the police report, a plan and description of the accident, my GPS log of the route, photographs of the scene and of damage to my bike, the letter from my repair shop and receipts for all my expenses.
This morning, I cycled to Brentford County Court, which is a short distance from my work place. I arrived at the uninviting building shortly before 10:00 and was waved through a metal detector in to a small waiting area, with just three chairs. The lady who hit me almost one year ago was already occupying one of them and I awkwardly sat down beside her.
It was to be a long wait. The silence was frequently interrupted by the pointless metal detector (which rang every time someone arrived, although no bags or coats were ever checked) and by a woman bellowing from upstairs to call people to their hearings.
Then a lady with a clipboard came up to us and suggested we try to resolve the matter amicably in an adjacent room. It seemed a little late in the day for that but we were persuaded to give it a go, unsuccessfully. I think this is what they call "mediation", which we had previously been told was not appropriate for road accidents.
After an hour, we were called upstairs and, at 11:15, we finally entered the court room. There were half a dozen or so rows of wooden benches and I was asked to sit at the front left of these while the defendant sat to the right. The judge was at an elevated desk at the very front. He struggled for a few minutes to get some recording equipment running and then we got underway.
The judge explained to us how the process would work in quite some detail and then turned to the documents we had each submitted, beginning with my expenses. He asked the defendant whether she agreed that I had incurred these costs as a result of the accident. She hesitated but then agreed that I had submitted sufficient proof of my costs. So at least the amount of the claim was not in dispute.
Turning his attention to her witness statement, the judge explained that this would not carry much weighting as the witness was her friend, not independent, and was not present in court to be cross-examined. In addition, the witness's claim that "the cyclist steered in to the car" was not helpful to the defence, he explained, as it did not deny that the motorist had been cutting the corner.
We were then each given the chance to state our case and to demonstrate how the accident unfolded, using a small toy car and a paperclip, representing me and my bicycle. No expense spared. The "prosecution" always goes first so I spent a few minutes explaining that I had taken the corner as far to my left as I could and that there was nothing I could have done to avoid colliding with the car.
The judge asked me whether I had seen the car and if I had slowed down ahead of the bend. I answered yes to both, adding that I had no way of knowing the motorist would cut the corner to such an extent.
Then the lady had her chance to describe events. Happily, she agreed when asked that she had taken the corner short. My favourite moment was when she explained that this was necessary as she had previously crashed off the outside of the corner in icy conditions.
I was then given the opportunity to respond, but felt little need to add anything. She was not denying having cut the corner, claiming instead that this was deliberate and legal "in order to be safe".
The judge then told us that he had reached a decision and would spend a few minutes summarising the case. He built up the suspense a little bit before finally revealing that the driver was in the wrong, telling her that, if it was really necessary for her to cut the corner, she should have assured herself that there was no oncoming traffic before doing so.
He concluded that we were both very lucky that I was not more seriously injured in the collision and seemed surprised that I was not suing for my injuries (bruising), nor asking for compensation for time off work to attend the trial.
As we left the courtroom, the woman suggested that she might go on to sue Hounslow Council for not providing adequate road markings on the corner. I will not be getting involved in that.
Diagram of accident site
The spot where we collided
Another car cuts corner in the same manner
Damage to my pedal
Damage to my derailleur
Sketch I submitted as part of police report
Letter from repair shop
Picture highlighting damage sustained
My view on approach to bend
View from driver's approach to bend
GPS log showing my path at time of accident
Brentford Country Court