Over 4,000 people in England and Wales have been prosecuted for a coronavirus offence through a rapid procedure that has highlighted concerns due to its limited transparency. Fears have now surfaced as hundreds may have been falsely charged.
Recent figures reveal that 4,242 of the cases were dealt with under the Single Justice Procedure (SJP) in connection to the health protection regulations in 2020. SJP rulings are devised by one magistrate sitting with a legal adviser.
It was discovered in a Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) review covering the first full year of coronavirus laws, that people involved in 18% of cases in England and Wales under the health protection regulations were incorrectly charged. Critics believe however, that the percentage could be much larger given the limited transparency.
Legal and policy officer at Big Brother Watch, Madeleine Stone, stated: “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 expose that there were 37 SJPs under schedule 22 of the Coronavirus Act, connecting to “events, gatherings and preventions.” The fact that ministers have not yet activated schedule 22, means that these 37 prosecutions are unlawful, Stone noted.
The CPS found that all 270 charges under the Coronavirus Act within the first year of coronavirus laws – not including SJPs – were to be brought incorrectly.
The legal and policy officer at Fair Trials, Griff Ferris, said: “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.”
However, even before the pandemic hit, SJPs were considered to be controversial, with a large number of defendants avoiding pleas. According to the Magistrates Association, most individuals did not recognise they were at risk of being convicted, so therefore failed to observe summary offence notices under the SJP.
A spokesperson from the Ministry of Justice 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.”
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