In a move that is likely to cause a great sigh of relief, the UK’s national prosecution agency, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is going to review all convictions passed under the hastily put together and spasmodically enforced Coroavirus legislation.
The legislation that was rushed through at breakneck speed at the beginning of the UK lockdown has been the focus of concern of civil liberties groups after the legislation was used by various county and regional police forces to crack down on what appears to be in most cases non-life threatening behaviour at best, and entirely innocent and admirable behaviour at worst. Though of course there have been some egregious cases of people behaving very badly, including spitting blood in the face of their officers, some Police forces have taken it upon themselves to apply the legislation in the most draconian and enthusiastic fashion; but now, the authorities are beginning to act.
British policing is by consent, if it is anything at all. The vast majority of police officers are unarmed, and their methods reflect that reality, or at least are supposed to. Now for the first time in the CPS’s history they are opening an investigation into every conviction brought about under this law.
This action was precipitated after a case involving an 18 year old was convicted for visiting his sick mother. Lewis Brown was arrested and charged through a piece of the legislation that was referring to people who had caught the virus in Wales. He was arrested in Oxford, has not been to Wales and there is no evidence that he has the virus. Wales is 75 miles from Oxford, and as Kathy Brimelow QC, an expert in Human Rights Law said,
“This seems to be another example of misuse of police powers, wrongful prosecution and unlawful conviction.
“For good measure, not only has the wrong law been used but the wrong law for the wrong country. The section charged and prosecuted relates to Wales. As far as I know, Wales has not expanded during the lockdown to include Oxford.
“It is clear that these cases are not outliers and the director of public prosecutions and district judges need to get a grip on the current trend of casual criminalisation of people.”
The case had been highlighted by Silke Carlo, Director of the think tank, Big Brother Watch, and resulted in a shamefaced Thames Valley Police force responding “We can confirm that in this instance Mr Brown was arrested and incorrectly charged under the Coronavirus Act and was convicted after he pleaded guilty to the offence. “
The fact that Mr Brown pleaded guilty to the case shows how poor his defence had been, and how frightened he must have been at the police action.
This case followed the preposterous case of Marie Dinou, who was convicted and fined under the legislation for ‘loitering between platforms’ at Newcastle railway station. Despite having no record of her income or means, the judge fined her £660 and ordered her to pay a £66 victim surcharge and £85 in costs.
The charge sheet said Ms Dinou had “failed to provide BTP officers with [her] identity or reasons for [her] journey”, and “failed to comply with a requirement” under the new law.
It was almost as if the police had taken an old Rowan Atkinson comedy sketch from the 1980’s about an officious policeman and turned it into their new instruction manual,
O: Well, for instance, this one: loitering with intent to use a pedestrian crossing. Savage, maybe you’re not aware of this, but it is not illegal to use a pedestrian crossing. Neither is smelling of foreign food an offence.
S: You’re sure, sir?
O: Also there is no law against urinating in a public convenience or coughing without due care and attention.
S: If you say so, sir.
O: Yes, I do say so, Savage! Didn’t they teach you anything at training school?
S: I’m sorry, sir.
O: Some of these cases are plain stupid: looking at me in a funny way … Is this some kind of joke, Savage?
S: No, sir.
O: And we have some more here: walking on the cracks in the pavement, walking in a loud shirt in a built-up area during the hours of darkness and walking around with an offensive wife. In short, Savage, in the space of one month you’ve brought 117 ridiculous, trumped-up and ludicrous charges.
Happily this case too has been thrown out.
The move by the CPS to review every single case under the law is heartening, but there are now calls to go one step further. In the time period of just two weeks between March 27th and April 13th, the Government has admitted that there had been 3,203 cases of on the spot fines under the same legislation, this number is believed to have multiplied significantly since then. Though the Minister, Michael Gove, preened himself on these figures, saying “all dedicated to helping save lives and protecting the NHS”, it is highly likely many of them will have themselves been beyond the law and unsafe.
Kathy Bigelow QC has now called for all fines, as well as court convictions to be put under review tweeting, “the police should also review all fixed penalty notices. There are highly likely to be errors as there has been misunderstanding of the difference between law and guidance.”
She has also called for the review to be carried out not only in the England and Wales jurisdictions, but also to Scotland which is just as likely to have heavy handed and confused police officers.
On Monday the UK legislators will be debating the issue, or at least that of the wrongful convictions, whether the Government is willing to show some contrition and water down the restrictions, and tidy up the sloppiness of both drafting and application will remain to be seen.
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