‘Hundreds unlawfully prosecuted’ under coronavirus laws, claim campaigners

Campaigners claim “hundreds of people have been wrongly charged and prosecuted” under coronavirus-related emergency laws.

Jun 2, 2021
By Paul Jacques
Picture: rightclickstudios / Shutterstock.com

They are now urging the Justice Secretary to suspend the use of the Single Justice Procedure, under which large numbers of charges for breaching lockdown restrictions are processed.

In a letter to Robert Buckland QC, the campaign groups, including Fair Trials, Transform Justice, Big Brother Watch and the Howard League for Penal Reform, claim these charges and prosecutions are being brought “without sufficient oversight, without any meaningful review process, and are resulting in guilty pleas and convictions for offences people have not committed, in a process they may also not be aware of”.

“The current situation is unjust and the current process is unfit for purpose,” the letter, delivered on Tuesday (June 1), adds.

They are calling for a review of all previous coronavirus-related prosecutions made under the Single Justice Procedure, which are not held in an open court and instead see one magistrate alongside a legal adviser decide cases based largely on police evidence.

“Hundreds of people have been wrongly charged and prosecuted under the Health Protection (Restrictions, Coronavirus) Regulations (‘the Regulations’) and the Coronavirus Act 2020 (‘the Act’) and we are concerned that many more unlawful charges brought via the Single Justice Procedure remain unchallenged,” the letter says.

The campaigners say a review of coronavirus-related charges by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) “uncovered a significant level of unlawful charges and prosecutions under both the Regulations and the Act”.

The letter states: “In total, 549 unlawful charges under the Regulations and the Act have been overturned out of 1,821 overall. This represents almost a third of all reviewed charges: 18 per cent of all reviewed charges under the Regulations and a staggering 100 per cent of reviewed charges under the Act respectively. This is a grave statistic.

“However, the majority of charges under the Regulations have not been reviewed, leading to the risk of hundreds more unlawful convictions, as they have been brought using the Single Justice Procedure, which are not considered by the CPS as part of their review.”

The letter adds: “Latest figures show that 1,084 charges were brought under the Regulations via the Single Justice Procedure. Considering the significant rates of unlawful charges found by the CPS’ reviews, we can assume that a sizeable number of these unreviewed charges will also be unlawful.”

A report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights said there were “real concerns about the fairness of these [single justice procedure] hearings”.

The campaign groups say the Single Justice Procedure is “not an appropriate mechanism for dealing with charges under the Regulations and the Act, given the high rates of unlawful charges, and wide confusion over the details of restrictions”.

Their letter states: “Confusion over restrictions has been well-documented, with police officers and even government ministers routinely demonstrating that the intricacies of new restrictions are not well understood.

“The CPS’ reviews have made it apparent that magistrates have also failed to prosecute correctly and lawfully those charged under the Regulations and the Act.”

It adds: “In relation to all offences charged via the Single Justice Procedure, more than 70 per cent of individuals who receive a notice do not respond at all or provide a plea. In relation to coronavirus offences specifically, this rises to 88 per cent.

“Hundreds and likely thousands of people have therefore been convicted and fined for coronavirus offences in their absence, without any checks or balances. It has also been raised that due to postal errors, some individuals may not even be aware that they have been charged in the first place.

“Given the highly complex and constantly changing coronavirus-related legislation, the lack of safeguards surrounding the Single Justice Procedure make it highly unsuitable for dealing with charges under the Regulations and the Act.

“Therefore, we also urge you to suspend the use of the Single Justice Procedure for Coronavirus- related offences.”

Andrew Steel, police and public services partner at Plexus Law, said while there is “understandable upset and concern” about the reported number of wrongful convictions under the coronavirus regulations, “this must be directed towards those responsible, not the criminal justice system as a whole”.

He added: “The police, to whom fell the unenviable task of enforcing new laws, often days after they hit the statute book, get tarred with the same brush as the legislature, policy makers and political parties.

“Whilst there will inevitably be examples of bad policing, one must understand the difficulties the police faced in enforcing the law; a hotchpot of unwieldly and difficult legislation, changing almost daily and often different in different areas of the country.

“There is no doubt that handling the pandemic presented a wide array of challenges. However, focusing anger at distain at those charged with enforcing new law, with no ability or time to review, understand and question before having to police the streets must be the wrong target.”

Police in England and Wales have processed a total of 115,203 fixed penalty notices for breaches of coronavirus restrictions up to May 16 this year

The latest provisional figures released by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) show that 4,881 fines were processed in the latest reporting period.

The total processed in England is now 103,623 and 11,580 in Wales.

NPCC chair Martin Hewitt, said: “As expected, the number of fines processed in the last four weeks has fallen significantly and reflects the encouraging strides we are making out of lockdown.

“Despite the further easing of restrictions and being able to meet families and friends again, we mustn’t forget that there are still some restrictions in place.

“The emergence of new variants in recent weeks has reinforced the need for us all to be personally responsible and follow the remaining rules. For the selfish minority who continue to blatantly break the rules, such as organising or attending illegal indoor gatherings, officers won’t hesitate to take necessary enforcement action.

“Officers will continue to be out in communities helping to stop the spread of this virus and keep us on track with the Government’s roadmap.”

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