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Review of prosecutions under coronavirus laws

MA comment

17 June 2020
Review of prosecutions under coronavirus laws

The government had to move swiftly to respond to the coronavirus pandemic by restricting movement of individuals, prohibiting gatherings and closing any premises not selling essential goods. Legislating to introduce these restrictions, with consequential enforcement powers, as well as implementing them has necessarily been done at speed. However concerns have been raised by examples of fines given and prosecutions taken forward which were later shown to be due to flawed decision-making.

We welcomed the response of the Crown Prosecution Service to commit to reviewing all prosecutions brought under coronavirus emergency legislation. This scrutiny is needed so the public can be confident the laws are being enforced properly. The first review found alarming data showing all prosecutions under the Coronavirus Act were incorrectly charged, and nearly 6% of those prosecuted under the Health Protection Regulations had to be withdrawn. Although the latest review showed far fewer prosecutions were brought in respect of the Coronavirus Act, there has been little statistical change. All nine of the prosecutions under the Coronavirus Act had to be discontinued and over 9% of the charges brought under the Health Protection Regulations had to be withdrawn. This means that over 15% of the cases under these laws are incorrectly charged.

It is also worth noting that the majority of cases where enforcement powers are used in relation to the Health Protection Regulations result in Fixed Penalty Notices given by the police, rather than prosecution. Data published by Liberty Investigates showed that between 27 March and 11 May, English police forces handed out 13,445 of these fines. There is no analysis on what proportion of these fines are incorrectly given, although the data shows an alarming trend of the fines being given disproportionately to BAME people. To ensure these fines are being used appropriately, and lessons are learnt in respect to any disproportionality, we recommend all police areas should have independent scrutiny panels working remotely to scrutinise the use of new powers.

The importance of ensuring there is a proper understanding of the new legislation is also clear. We therefore call on the government to:

  • Urgently introduce clear guidance and training to all those in the criminal justice system on the Coronavirus Act and the additional Regulations introduced.
  • Initiate a government-run public education campaign on the new legislation in terms of requirements and offences. Public confidence in the legitimacy of the justice system must be maintained.

John Bache, National Chair of the MA, said, 'public confidence in the justice system is of paramount importance and ensuring emergency powers introduced in response to coronavirus are used appropriately is a key part of retaining that confidence'.

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