Legal fears raised over England and Wales fast-track Covid prosecutions
More than 4,000 people in England and Wales have been prosecuted for a coronavirus offence through a controversial fast-track procedure that has raised concerns because of its lack of transparency, with fears hundreds could have been wrongly charged.
New figures show that 4,242 cases were dealt with under the single justice procedure (SJP) in relation to the health protection regulations last year. SJP rulings are made by a single magistrate sitting with a legal adviser. Defendants receive a letter informing them of the SJP and it is up to them whether they attend the hearing. In 90% of the Covid cases no plea was entered.
A Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) review of the first full year of coronavirus laws found that in 18% of cases – SJPs excluded – brought in England and Wales under the health protection regulations people were wrongly charged. SJPs are not reviewed by the CPS but if a similar proportion were brought incorrectly that would mean 762 people would have been wrongly charged. Critics believe the number could be even higher, given the lack of transparency.
The figures were provided in an answer to a written parliamentary question tabled by the Labour MP and shadow justice minister Alex Cunningham, at the request of Big Brother Watch.
Madeleine Stone, legal and policy officer at Big Brother Watch, said: “The single justice procedure is justice on the cheap and is completely inappropriate for assessing charges under confusing lockdown laws.
“We know that dozens of people have been unlawfully prosecuted under these rushed assessments, and it’s likely that the true number is even higher. It’s urgent that the government takes steps to fix this wave of injustice.”
The figures also show that there were 37 SJPs under schedule 22 of the Coronavirus Act, relating to “events, gatherings and preventions”. Schedule 22 has not been activated by ministers, making these 37 prosecutions unlawful, Stone said.
Additionally, SJPs are only supposed to be used for the health protection regulations, not the Coronavirus Act, but there were also eight SJP prosecutions under schedule 21 of the act, including three for refusing to be screened for coronavirus.
All 270 charges under the Coronavirus Act in the first full year of coronavirus laws – excluding SJPs – were found by the CPS to be brought incorrectly.
Griff Ferris, the legal and policy officer at Fair Trials, said these examples highlighted the confusion surrounding pandemic laws.
“It’s staggering and deeply unjust that thousands of people have been criminalised and financially penalised for alleged coronavirus offences by a secret justice procedure, in a closed court, often without their knowledge,” he said.
“It’s likely that many of these convictions are unlawful. The single justice procedure is completely inappropriate for assessing charges under confusing lockdown laws and must be halted and these cases must all be included in the CPS’s review, which has already exposed many wrongful prosecutions and convictions.”
Even prior to the pandemic, SJPs were controversial, with a high proportion of defendants not entering pleas. The Magistrates Association said people were increasingly ignoring summary offence notices under the SJP because they did not recognise they were at risk of being convicted.
A Ministry of Justice (MoJ) spokesperson said: “The SJP allows those who plead guilty to low-level, non-imprisonable crimes to resolve their case without going to court – it would not be used for the more serious offences being claimed.
“All defendants can request an open hearing and have their conviction voided and reheard if necessary.”