New restrictions on personal movement designed to stop the spread of coronavirus look to have been accepted by the vast majority of the British public. Police, however, are still actively on patrol for people who flout the rules.
Breaking them risks a fine, as many people in the country are finding out.
As of mid-April, police from 37 forces in England and Wales had issued more than 1,100 fines for breaches of coronavirus regulations since lockdown measures were first announced.
Police are using their new powers to issue spot fines of £60 – and potentially another for £120 for a second offence – with gusto.
The government has stipulated that people should only leave their homes to go to work, buy essentials like food and medicines, take a limited amount of exercise, or obtain medical care. Most people are doing just that – staying at home or practising social distancing by keeping at least two metres away from others when they do have to venture out.
While the home secretary says the measures are intended to ‘protect the public and keep people safe’, anyone who isn’t able to work from home, needs to see a doctor or is merely visiting their local Boots or Tesco’s, can find themselves being stopped and questioned.
If police aren’t happy with the stated reason for being outdoors, a fine can result. But the options for challenging it are becoming limited.
Caught in legal limbo
Because of the pandemic, Courts are only dealing with high priority cases and have stopped listing matters relating to fines.
Despite that, penalty enforcement teams are in hot pursuit of payment – even if the people in default have lost their jobs, been furloughed, or are otherwise at risk of losing their jobs because of the pandemic.
While we wait for the Courts to resume their full range of work, matters relating to COVID-19 fines can’t be progressed. Unless fine enforcement teams halt action against defaulters in response to a national crisis, many people who would otherwise challenge their fines will find themselves in a frustrating catch-22.
What powers do police have?
The government’s Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations 2020 act enables police to take action if they ‘reasonably believe’ someone is breaking the law, and can show that the action they’ve taken is ‘necessary and proportionate’.
They have the power to order someone to leave an area, go home, disperse groups of people, or remove a person by (reasonable) force. They can also take steps to ensure that parents keep their children in line with the rules.
The £60 spot fine doubles to £120 for a second offence. The doubling continues for subsequent offences up to a maximum of £960.
While receiving a fine is not a criminal conviction, not paying it can result in enforcement action including (when courts resume normal working) being taken to court.
Refusing to provide name and address to police in an attempt to avoid a fine can result in arrest.
What can you do?
While the lockdown rules are still in-force and courts are unable to progress matters relating to fines, the options to challenge a COVID-19 related fine are limited.
The cost of initial spot fines issued by police can be cut to £30 if they are paid within two weeks. Beyond that, anyone who wants to challenge a fine – and is willing to risk enforcement action while they wait for courts to re-open – may wish to consider the following steps:
The National Police Chiefs’ Council has said that the appeal process for a COVID-19 lockdown fine will be similar to that for a fixed penalty notice, or a penalty notice for disorder.
- Be sure you know exactly what you have been fined for. Ask the police force that fined you to clarify what you’ve done to justify the penalty. You should also ask which law the penalty was issued under. The paperwork police gave you will also have details.
- When the relevant magistrates’ court re-opens for fine-related matters, a hearing would hopefully take place. You would then have an opportunity to explain why you feel the fine should not stand. The court would then decide whether it should be canceled.
If you do decide to contest a fine, under those circumstances, we may be able to offer some guidance. Our advice is free and impartial, and if you wish, one of our fully-qualified solicitors may be able to represent you in court.
If you have a low income or are on benefits, after a successful application for legal aid, we may also be able to represent you free of charge.
For more information, contact us today on 0800 612 7128 (24hr) or visit https://www.cantpaymyfine.co.uk.