A coalition of legal rights organisations, practitioners and policymakers have called on the Secretary of State for Justice to conduct an urgent review of historic and ongoing fines and prosecutions made under coronavirus regulations. In a letter sent to Dominic Raab MP, more than 40 politicians and 15 human rights groups, including Big Brother Watch and Fair Trials, said there was ‘clear evidence’ that offences listed under the Health Protection Regulations and the Coronavirus Act 2020 had been ‘applied in a discriminatory fashion.’ ‘Amid allegations of numerous offences under these same laws in the heart of Government, it is vital that decisive action is taken to safeguard the public’s trust in the justice system’, argued the collective.
‘This Government has thrown the country into a rule of law crisis and urgent action is needed to protect justice’, said the director of Big Brother Watch Silkie Carlo. ‘We have set out how thousands of people have been unlawfully prosecuted by a broken justice system, under constantly changing coronavirus laws, the most restrictive in British peacetime.’
Drawing on data uncovered by the Crown Prosecution Service during their ‘ongoing’ review of charges brought under coronavirus-related legislation, the coalition noted that ‘30% of all charges reviewed’ – ‘803’ out of ‘2,716 charges overall’ – were unlawful. ‘100% of charges under the Coronavirus Act 2020 were found to be unlawful, and 21% of charges under the Health Protection Regulations were unlawful’, stated the letter. ‘We are not aware of any law in history that has an accompanying 100% unlawful prosecution rate.’ Charges brought under the Single Justice Procedure, criminal offences decided by a magistrate without going to court, were also identified as forming a ‘significant’ proportion of unlawful charges related to coronavirus legislation, despite not being covered by the CPS review. ‘As of 24th June 2021, 7,234 coronavirus-related offences had been heard under the SJP. If the error rate is in line with CPS’ reviews, this could mean over 2,100 unlawful charges.’
The enforcement of Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs) for coronavirus-related offences was described in the letter as representing ‘a serious injustice that must be investigated and remedied’. ‘If, in line with the unlawful rate of prosecutions found by the CPS, 21% of the 118,963 FPNs recorded in England and Wales were unlawfully issued’ on the grounds of coronavirus regulations – standing at just under 25,000 in total.
‘The criminal justice response to the pandemic has been heavy handed, with police across the country criminalising thousands of people and dispensing significant penalties at what is a time of extreme hardship for many’, said Griff Ferris, a legal and policy officer at Fair Trials.’ ‘People deserve justice, and that means refunding fines, withdrawing prosecutions, and deleting criminal records.’
Earlier this week, it was announced that the Metropolitan Police had received 300 images and 500 pages of documents related to alleged gatherings attended by the Prime Minister Boris Johnson on government premises over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. At present, the prime minister has refused to commit to resigning if he is fined by the police for breaking lockdown rules.
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