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I'm not sure the title has the correct wording, but I'm imagining a situation where, say, a driver is operating an unregistered vehicle and is involved in an accident. In order to narrow this question a bit, let's say;

  • No one was intoxicated, driving recklessly, etc.
  • The damages are both to property and personal.

My questions are:

  • Does the fact that the vehicle is unregistered come into play in deciding who is liable to pay for damages (and how much)?
  • Obviously there is an element of discretion, but does the law allow for a heavier fine for operating an unregistered vehicle when it is involved in an accident (versus if a police officer had conducted a traffic stop)?
  • Does any of this change if the vehicle is road-worthy or not? E.g. the car simply has lapsed registration vs, say, a dirt bike without plates, mirrors, lights, etc.
  • What happens if the driver of the unregistered vehicle is at fault, vs not at fault?

I'm specifically interested in the state of New South Wales.

2 Answers 2

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Fundamentally, motor vehicle accident damages are determined by the law of negligence. The fact that one driver was illegally driving an unregistered car may or may not tend to show that they were negligent ("at fault"). It is possible that, on the evidence presented in court, neither or both parties would be found negligent (contributory negligence). If the vehicle is obviously unroadworthy and unregistered, this is more likely to imply that the driver was negligent than a case of lapsed registration.

In addition, New South Wales has a compulsory third party (CTP) insurance scheme governed by the Motor Accident Injuries Act 2017. This means that damages for personal injury caused by negligence are normally covered by an insurance policy paid for by the car's registered owner. The CTP scheme also allocates liability for "no fault" accidents where negligence cannot be proved, and allows for claims against the "Nominal Defendant" when an unregistered car is involved. In these accidents, the injured party would still receive damages, which the Nominal Defendant could try to recover from the owner or driver, if they had any assets.

The CTP scheme does not apply to property damage. Many drivers have insurance for negligent damage to property as well, but not drivers of unregistered cars. If the driver of an unregistered car negligently causes property damage, they can theoretically be sued for negligence, but they probably won't have any assets to claim against. The party who suffered damage (or their insurer, if they had a comprehensive policy) would be out of pocket.

As for the criminal law question – whether a heavier fine would apply for driving an unregistered vehicle involved in an accident – the harm caused by an offence is certainly relevant to the sentencing discretion. If the Nominal Defendant or the other car's owner actually lost money because of the unregistered car, this could be taken into account as an aggravating factor.

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Vehicles are not “licensed”

To lawfully operate a vehicle on NSW public roads:

  • The driver must hold a valid, non-suspended licence (from NSW or another state, territory, or country).
  • The vehicle must be registered (in NSW or another state or territory).
  • The vehicle must have compulsory third-party injury insurance (from NSW or another state or territory). This is commonly called a Green Slip and is impossible to register most vehicles without one (there are exceptions for things like excavators which operate on public roads but don’t “drive” on them).

Operating a vehicle without these is, in each case, a seperate offence that applies in addition to any offence that may have occurred as part of the collision. So, if you have none of these and negligently kill someone, you will be charged with driving without a licence, driving an unregistered vehicle, driving an uninsured vehicle, and negligent driving occasioning death.

Compensation for injury

People injured in a motor vehicle accident are entitled to no-fault compensation by making a claim against a NSW insured vehicle. Where the vehicle is insured interstate, uninsured, or unidentifiable, they instead make a claim against the nominal defendant. So, an injured person is covered even if the vehicle is uninsured.

Compensation for property damage

If a driver was negligent, then they are liable to pay for any and all property damage they cause.

If they have third-party property insurance, their insurer will indemnify them for this. If they have comprehensive insurance, the insurer will also pay to repair their car. Neither type of insurance is compulsory. It is also universal in such policies that driving while unlicensed or suspended, or driving an unregistered vehicle invalidates the insurance.

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