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Police Powers of Vehicle Seizure and Disposal

On the 29th of May 2020 the High Court decided that North Wales Police were wrong to dispose of someone’s motorhome by auction after deciding an insurance certificate wasn’t valid.

On the 29th of May 2020 the High Court decided that North Wales Police were wrong to dispose of someone’s motorhome by auction after deciding an insurance certificate wasn’t valid. Police can be very opinionated when it comes to insurance, frequently determining whether in their view insurance is valid or not. It is a constant source of difficulty for many drivers.

The case came to court because in October 2019 North Wales police seized a motorhome. Mr and Mrs Linse were in the vehicle, being driven by Mr Linse. It had been seen by police officers who followed it because they had been told it was uninsured. Police stopped it and asked for evidence of insurance. It could not be produced at the time and so police seized it.

Section 143 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 provides that a person commits an offence if they drive a motor vehicle on a road or other public place without insurance. The same provision applies if someone causes or permits another person to use a vehicle.

Section 165 at the same Act provides that a person driving a vehicle on the road must produce a certificate of insurance when required to do so by a police constable. The same section gives power to a “constable in uniform” to seize vehicles driven without a licence or without insurance if no such evidence is produced and if the constable has “reasonable grounds for believing that the vehicle is or was being driven without insurance.

The officer took the keys and gave Mrs Linse a seizure notice which set out the steps that she would have to take to get the vehicle back. She had to produce a valid certificate of insurance and driving licence at a nominated police station and to attend the recovery firm and pay all the costs of removal and storage. The notice apparently contained a warning that the steps had to be taken within 7 days or the vehicle could be sold or scrapped.

Mrs Linse acted quickly. The following day she attended Caernarfon police station with an insurance certificate and driving licence. However, the officer decided it wasn’t a valid insurance. She therefore went to a fresh insurer, NFU Mutual, and insured the vehicle with them. She went back to the police station with the documents which again the officer decided were not valid. According to the judgment Mrs Linz had some driving convictions registered against her and the officer decided in consultation with the insurer that these rendered the insurance “invalid”.

Mrs Linse quickly started judicial review proceedings to challenge this and she won. She wanted her motorhome back, but whilst the court decided she was entitled to it, North Wales Police decided the vehicle should nonetheless be disposed of, and they sold it at auction. They were heavily criticised for doing this because when they did so the case was already before a High Court judge. The judge said, “in my judgement it is not conduct which may be expected on behalf of a Chief Constable of Police.”

The case focussed on the meaning of certain parts of the Road Traffic 1988 (Retention and Disposal of Seized Motor Vehicles) Regulations 2005. They have not been scrutinised by a court before, but they have now. It is Regulation 5 which applies in the circumstances faced by Mrs Linse. In short, the Regulation entitled her to remove the vehicle from storage on production of a valid certificate of insurance and a valid driving licence. Mrs Linse had produced both but the officer decided that the convictions apparently recorded against her name rendered the policy, as he put it, “invalid”.

He was wrong.

The proper analysis is that insurance law draws a distinction between policies which are “void” or “voidable”. The word “invalid” as used by the officer had no application.

A policy which is void is one which has never been of any effect. One which is voidable is of effect until such time as an insurer decides it is of no effect and tells the insured. If for example a driver takes out a policy and doesn’t declare something like a previous conviction, the policy is voidable by the insurer if on learning the true facts it decides to withdraw from it. Insurers have a choice. When Mrs Linse produced her NFU Mutual certificate of insurance it was of effect until such time as NFU Mutual decided it wasn’t. In other words, it was for the insurer to make that decision, not the police.

It followed she had been entitled to drive her vehicle away. Regrettably, North Wales police had by the date of the final hearing in late May 2020 disposed of her vehicle by auction, and she learned of this when she saw spare parts advertised for sale on the internet. Her vehicle had been dismantled. The judge roundly criticised North Wales police for doing this and set a timetable for the hearing of her compensation claim.

Police need to be much more careful and considered when making decisions on the validity of an insurance policy.

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