A pilot programme to give problem drinkers a chance to avoid a driving ban could be discriminatory, an addiction counsellor has warned.
Fiona Elkinson, who runs her own drink-driver education programme, said the new Driving Under the Influence Court, pioneered by senior magistrate Juan Wolffe, allowed drink-drivers who admitted they had an alcohol problem to keep their licences if they underwent an intensive treatment course.
Ms Elkinson said the scheme could penalise drink-drivers who do not have an addiction problem if they were not given a route to allow them to retain their licences as well.
Ms Elkinson, who has run her DUI education programme for 20 years, added: “I stand by mandatory education courses for everyone convicted of drink driving-related offences, but it wouldn’t be sensible if people who have a drinking problem can get on the road while people who do not have a drinking problem cannot.”
She said that the DUI Court’s pilot programme had good intentions, but if motorists who did not have a serious problem had no way to avoid a ban, it would be unfair.
Mr Wolffe did not respond to a request for comment on the DUI Court, how it would be organised and how eligibility would be assessed.
The Ministry of Legal Affairs and the Ministry of National Security also declined to comment and referred questions to Mr Wolffe.
Mr Wolffe said in February: “DUI Court is not for people who want to stay on the road. It’s for people who want to deal with their drinking problem.
“If you don’t have a problem, then it’s not for you.”
Ms Elkinson, who met Mr Wolffe to discuss the drink-driving court but is not part of the pilot, said: “I think the reason it was set up was to get people the treatment that they need and allow the court to have power to make people get the level of treatment that they need and that is a positive thing.
“Mr Wolffe knows that people can change and with counselling and education they do step up and make change.”
Statistics from the Coroner’s Office show about 75 per cent of road deaths in Bermuda involve alcohol or drugs.
Magistrates’ Court deals with hundreds of drink-driving cases every year.
Mr Wolffe said last year that he wanted to break the cycle of repeat offending with the new court and that fines and bans on their own were not a sufficient deterrent.
He added that the DUI Court would be similar to the Drug Treatment and Mental Health Courts and give magistrates more sentencing options.
But Ms Elkinson questioned why the drug court could not deal with the DUI defendants.
She said: “It seems to me that the DUI Court is the same programme — you are doubling up on the same thing. If it is only for people with problems then why are they not in the Drug Treatment Court?”
Ms Elkinson added that several of her clients had complained that problem drinkers would be able to retain their licences after a conviction, but they could not.
She said one client, a truck driver who did not have a serious drinking problem, had told her he wanted to go through the DUI Court and was prepared to follow the same regime as problem drinkers to keep his licence.
Ms Elkinson said some of her clients convicted of drink-driving could have their roads bans reduced by three months if they completed her course.
But she added there was no way for them to avoid a ban, other than through the discretionary power of a magistrate.
Ms Elkinson said that there should be a range of drink-driver courses designed to reflect the seriousness of the offences.
She explained: “There needs to be a level one DUI programme for first offenders and a level two DUI, which is more intensive, for second offenders.
“Level three would be virtually probation with drug testing because they have had three alcohol-related arrests.”
Commissioner of Police Stephen Corbishley declined to comment on sentencing policy because it was a matter for the courts.
But he said: “There has been significant progress in tackling drink-driving since Bermuda’s introduction of roadside sobriety tests.
“Culturally, we see far more awareness of this agenda and I am encouraged by some of the changes taking place.
“We need to do more to continue to tackle this problem ... and in turn to support partners and the media in getting the message across that drinking and driving is dangerous and has serious consequences.”