Know Your Rights: Commons and Covid-19

Commons logo Covid-19

Guest contributor Charlotte Threipland on Commons’ new Fines + Crimes app, and how you can protect yourself in the wake of ever-changing Covid-19 regulations in the UK.

Only a year ago, having the government dictate the terms by which we travel to and spend time with our nearest and dearest over the festive period, or indeed at any other point in the year, would have been unthinkable.

Today, as we all recognise with a dreadful familiarity, a raft of new laws created in the name of Covid-19 do just that. While lockdown measures are essential to curbing the spread of Covid-19, these measures are, in many ways, the largest infringement on our fundamental rights and liberties since the second World War.

With the new national lockdown featuring guidance and rules that are often confusing, many will be asking: what happens if I am stopped by the police and accused of breaking the rules?

A breach of the regulations is against the law and potentially a criminal matter. But, in the wake of a criminal justice system which is already overwhelmed and suffering under the weight of huge backlogs and years of underfunding, the government has devised a system whose aim is to keep people out of the courts.

When the police reasonably believe you have committed an offence, you will be issued a fine, or Fixed Penalty Notice (FPN). These fines range from £100 for those that pay early, to a maximum of £10,000, issued for organising an illegal gathering. If you cough up and pay within 28 days, you’ll avoid a criminal record. If not, you’ll be summoned to court.

Unfortunately, there have been problems with how this system has been rolled out. I work with Commons, a non-profit law firm based in South London. Alongside human rights groups, we have found the ways in which the police have been using their powers concerning.

Research shows that the likelihood of receiving an FPN is a postcode lottery and that if you’re a person of colour, you are 54% more likely to be issued a fine.

The police have been overzealous in their approach. One police force dyed a lagoon black during the Spring lockdown to try and discourage people from visiting the area. Meanwhile, all of the prosecutions which have been made under the Coronavirus Act (rather than the regulations) have been found unlawful by the Crown Prosecution Service.

The FPN system also disproportionately affects younger people. 80 per cent of all Coronavirus FPNs issued in England and Wales were given to those aged between 18-39.

Concerns around the system led Commons to create a tool helping people who have been stopped by the police over alleged breaches of the Coronavirus regulations. The Coronavirus Fines + Crimes: Web App aims to help people navigate their rights and assess their options.

The data we collect is used to monitor police behaviour, tracking the extent to which policing under the Coronavirus regulations is being carried out fairly, particularly towards minority ethnic groups.

In a democracy, and particularly during a pandemic, it is important that people know their rights. We also need to better understand how police forces are carrying out their duties by monitoring the impact on minority ethnic groups and keeping an eye on excessive policing.

If you or anyone you know has been stopped by the police and told that you are in breach of Coronavirus rules, please get in touch by completing this form. If you would like more information on the FPN process and regulations, we have written a short guide to accompany the tool.

Charlotte Threipland is a communications and research consultant for Commons, a criminal defence law firm committed to social justice.

Charlotte Threipland

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