More than 100 people wrongly prosecuted for breaking coronavirus laws, review finds

More than 100 people wrongly prosecuted for breaking coronavirus laws, review finds

More than 100 people have been wrongly prosecuted under coronavirus laws and the number is likely to rise, according to a review.

All 89 charges brought under the Coronavirus Act 2020 have been overturned but the government has refused to scrap the law, and the number is expected to rise.

Another 26 charges under the separate Health Protection Regulations, which enforce lockdown restrictions, were found to be unlawful by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

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The figures cover only cases that had been finalised in England and Wales by the end of June, and more prosecutions are going through the system.

Human rights lawyers and campaigners have condemned the creation of “unnecessary” new offences, which have been used against children and vulnerable people.

They include a woman who was fined £660 for a crime she had not committed, five days after the Coronavirus Act became law.

The CPS said 115 charges were found to be unlawful so far, but that “there remain more live cases”.

“The CPS will therefore continue this vital work for as long as necessary,” its director of legal services, Gregor McGill, added.

“Our prosecutors across the country are providing an invaluable service in ensuring the right people are charged for the right offences.”

The review does not cover the more than 18,600 fines handed out in England and Wales under coronavirus laws, because they do not constitute a prosecution.

For the cases finalised in June, 99 out of 141 were correct overall and the vast majority of charges had been brought by police.

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Prosecutors withdrew all but one of the 42 erroneous charges at the first court appearance, but one person was wrongly convicted of a Coronavirus Act offence and had to be returned to court.

leftCreated with Sketch.
rightCreated with Sketch.

The CPS said most mistakes under the Health Protection Regulations were over Welsh law being used in England.

But all Coronavirus Act prosecutions were wrong “because there was no evidence they applied to potentially infectious people”.

Documents seen by The Independent show that dozens of cases under schedule 21 of the act are still going through magistrates’ courts across the country.

It gives police the power to direct “potentially infectious persons” to a place suitable for screening and assessment, and take them by force if they refuse.

The law makes it a criminal offence punishable by a fine of up to £1,000 to refuse a direction, escape or provide false information.

It was drawn up at a time when the threat of coronavirus was mainly perceived to come from abroad, and dedicated “places suitable for screening and assessment” where infectious people can be detained have never been set up.

Three other sets of laws have subsequently been introduced to enforce the coronavirus lockdown, face masks on public transport and a two-week quarantine for people entering England.

Asked by The Independent last month whether it would abolish the Coronavirus Act in light of the changes and unlawful prosecutions, the Department of Health said it would not.

In early April, police officers across the country were issued with new guidance telling them to use the “exceptional powers for exceptional circumstances only”.

An official document said people should only be arrested under the Coronavirus Act at the request of a health professional, and that separate laws should be used for people breaking the lockdown.

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The Health Protection Regulations, which came into force on 27 March and have been updated as restrictions have eased, gave officers the power to fine or arrest people for illegal gatherings being outside “without reasonable excuse”.

More than 18,600 fines have so far been given out by police in England and Wales, although the rate has dropped steeply as the lockdown is relaxed.

Kirsty Brimelow QC, a human rights barrister, called for the health secretary to review the powers.

“The ‘potentially infectious persons’ provisions are totally redundant and dangerous as they are being misapplied,” she added. “They need to be repealed or revised to remove the power to prosecute.”

Silkie Carlo, director of the Big Brother Watch civil liberties group, said there was a “big crossover” between the laws.

“Schedule 21 has been used to target and punish vulnerable people – the homeless and mentally ill,” she added.

“There is now no evidence base for them remaining in law, but overwhelming evidence to repeal them.”

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