Covid Justice Crisis: MPs, rights groups and lawyers call for urgent review of all covid related fines and prosecutions

Article by Fair Trials

Fair Trials and civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch have sent a letter to Justice Secretary, Dominic Raab MP, demanding a review of coronavirus fines and prosecutions, backed by 15 rights groups, 40+ parliamentarians and several human rights lawyers.

In the joint letter, the signatories cite the discriminatory, inconsistent and unlawful enforcement of coronavirus laws and regulations. In order for justice to be served, there is an urgent need for a review of the enforcement of coronavirus-related laws and regulations. We are calling for wrongfully or unlawfully issued fines to be repaid, prosecutions withdrawn and criminal convictions rescinded.

Senior cross-party MPs including former minister David Davis MP, influential Conservative MP Steve Baker MP, former shadow Attorney General Shami Chakrabarti, former labour leader Jeremy Corbyn MP, and Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesperson Alistair Carmichael MP are among parliamentarians backing the call, joining 15 rights groups and senior human rights lawyers.

Griff Ferris, Legal and Policy Officer at Fair Trials said:

“The criminal justice response to the pandemic has been heavy-handed, with police across the country criminalising thousands of people and dispending significant financial penalties at what is a time of extreme hardship for many. It has been discriminatory, with Black, Asian and ethnic minority people fines disproportionately more than white people. It has also been, in many cases unlawful.

It is deeply unjust that so many people have been criminalised and financially penalised by racist and inconsistent policing, and unlawful, opaque and unchecked prosecutions. People deserve justice, and that means refunding fines, withdrawing prosecutions, and deleting criminal records.”

Silkie Carlo, Director of Big Brother Watch said:

“This government has thrown the country into a rule of law crisis and urgent action is needed to protect justice.

“We have set out how thousands of people have been unlawfully fined and prosecuted by a broken justice system, under  constantly changing coronavirus laws – the most restrictive in British peacetime. We have demonstrated that prosecutions under inactive Coronavirus Act powers have taken place that are plainly unlawful, which the Justice Secretary must urgently address. It is an insult and grave injustice for innocent people who have found themselves wrongly criminalised, whilst allegations of genuine law-breaking engulf Downing Street.

“Minoritised groups have disproportionately felt the hard edge of the law, often wrongly, whilst those in power appear to have partied right under the  nose of the police. A review of all fines and an accessible route to redress is now urgently needed to recover fairness, justice, and equality before the law.”

Police have handed out hundreds of thousands of fines for alleged breaches of lockdown laws, with 118,963 fixed penalty notices (FPNs) issued by police in England and Wales for breaches under coronavirus regulations. Analysis based on known rates of wrongful prosecutions indicates that as many as 25,000 of those fines could have been unlawfully issued. As of June 2021, 369 fines of £10,000 had been given out for ‘participating in a large gathering’ (more than 30 people). 3,941 fines of £800 had been given out for participating  in a gathering of more than 15 people.

The letter also notes the “discriminatory” enforcement of coronavirus offences, with “Black and Asian people in England disproportionately facing fines for Coronavirus-related offences.” Police were twice as likely to fine young Black, Asian and minoritised ethnic people for alleged lockdown offences, while stop and search rose 24% during the first year of the pandemic.

The Justice Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights have both recommended on multiple occasions that the Government review the issuing of fines – Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs) – for coronavirus-related offences. Rights groups and parliamentarians previously wrote to the Justice Secretary in June 2020 calling for all coronavirus fines to be reviewed.

The letter also considers the high rate of unlawful prosecutions found by an ongoing CPS review – 30% of all charges reviewed. However, most charges and prosecutions under the Regulations have not even been reviewed, as they were brought using the Single Justice Procedure (SJP). SJP cases are not considered by the CPS as part of their review. They are charged by the police and heard ‘on the papers’ by a single magistrate alongside a legal advisor. More than 7,000 coronavirus cases have been dealt with via the Single Justice Procedure.