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Helmet law clogs up justice system

Monday May 01, 2017 Written by Published in Local
Both young people and tourists are being caught out by the Cook Islands helmet law, with some riders like this one opting to wear a helmet, and others chancing a fine. 17042839 Both young people and tourists are being caught out by the Cook Islands helmet law, with some riders like this one opting to wear a helmet, and others chancing a fine. 17042839

The new motorcycle helmet law is becoming a hot topic in the Avarua High Court.

In criminal court last Thursday, 61 cases were scheduled for call-over, sentencing and updates

Forty-two of these were unpaid fines for minor traffic infringements, all of them involving individuals between the age of 16 and 25 failing to wear a safety helmet.

On April 6, Justice of the Peace John Whitta gave the same 42 people a second chance.

“I will say it is your lucky day, because what we are going to do for all matters today, for minor traffic offences, is adjourn them for three weeks,” he said at the time.

Police prosecutor Sergeant Fairoa Tararo suggested that the adjournment be made 14 days to allow time for those who are paid fortnightly to make the payment and Whitta agreed.

“On the 27th (of April) all of you who have not paid your fines will come back to this court and you will face a fresh charge, a separate offence, of failing to pay your fine.”

The leniency came after it was brought to the court’s attention that a large number of youngsters could incur their first criminal conviction at the early age of 16, all because of an unpaid fine.

Three weeks passed, and as promised, last Thursday the court addressed each of the offences from April 6.

JP Whitta first addressed those appearing for minor traffic offences.

The court heard that the many traffic cases would be adjourned till 1pm so that major cases could be dealt with at the earliest opportunity. Those present for traffic charges were asked to leave and told to return at 1pm. Just two people stood up and left.

As the court session continued, the number of people in the room decreased, and as 1pm approached it was apparent no-one was going to show up for their case. 

Whitta jokingly addressed the bare court room,

“I will assume that as the court room is empty, everyone has paid their fines,” Whitta said. However, he soon learned this was not the case.

Sergeant Tararo told the court that out of the 42 individuals, 14 had paid their fines in the three weeks allocated, 10 no longer lived on Rarotonga and their cases had been withdrawn, and a further six had appeared in court on April 6, were aware of the consequences, and had still failed to pay their fines.

Tararo said four of the 42 people had been summoned on both occasions and had failed to appear and pay their fines and a further eight were yet to be summoned to court.

The court heard that all those who had not paid their fines, including those who had been summoned and had appeared, and those who have yet to be summoned, would appear on a fresh charge of failing to pay their fine - a charge that comes with a criminal conviction.

“The maximum fine on that charge is way above that of traffic offences. It’s $500. Plus, you will be charged with cost of your fine.” JP Whitta told the few charged with failing to wear a helmet who appeared in court on April 6.

Defence counsel Short, a driving force behind the leniency granted to the young students with unpaid fines three weeks ago, spoke of his regret at the situation.

“The last thing we need is to have 16-year-olds with convictions.

“The act of not wearing a helmet isn’t a criminal offence; it becomes an offence when they don’t pay the fines.”

Short said most of those charged for not wearing a safety helmet and other minor traffic infringements, had no form of income, and were unable to pay the fine.

“These matters should not come to court because the majority of people charged with not wearing helmets and driving without mirrors or no warrant of fitness are young students who do not work and have no form of income.

“There has to be an alternative way to address these matters. Parents need to take responsibility for their children and make arrangements with the police to pay their children’s fines.

I am sure the police would be willing to work in with parents to have these fines paid off in instalments.”

Short said most parents who cared for their children did not want to see them with a permanent mark next to their name.

“They don’t want them getting convictions for failing to pay a fine, for a traffic offence, as this stays with them for the rest of their lives.”

Many commentators, including Short, have suggested visits and presentations to schools may offer an alternative way of teaching Cook Island students the importance of abiding by the rules, and paying their fines if they are caught breaking the law.


JP Whitta attempted to enlighten the youngsters in court on April 6, explaining that a conviction as minor as a traffic offence could hurt their job chances and disrupt future travel plans.

“When you young people are travelling you sometimes get asked if you have a conviction.

“It may not seem like much to you, (it) may not seem so bad, but trust me, if you try to get into a country and have to tick that box, or go for a job, and you have to tick that box, then it could change things.

“You may not get that job, or get into that country.”

Speaking after the court session, Tararo said that there could have been others who had paid their fines, and that their payments may have got “lost in translation” due to spelling variations.

“There is still the possibility that more, if not most have paid, up to the point of maybe (there are) one or two that haven’t. It could be the case of different names, and our people haven’t picked it up.”

Enforcement of the helmet law has not only sparked issues involving young people obtaining their first conviction at the age of 16, but also concern that if this problem continues, the justice system will be jam-packed with dozens of cases regarding unpaid traffic infringements.

Most of these will require offenders to take time off school to appear in court.

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