Britain’s most senior police officer has apologised after it was revealed every person prosecuted under the Coronavirus Act had been unlawfully charged.
Cases against all 44 individuals charged under the new law have now been withdrawn, according to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).
A further 12 people who were charged under the second piece of coronavirus legislation — the Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations — have also had cases abandoned due to Welsh regulations being applied in England, and vice versa.
Earlier this month, the CPS announced it was reviewing all cases under the new Coronavirus laws after The Times exposed two wrongful convictions.
The laws to deal with the coronavirus were brought in in two stages: the Coronavirus Act, primarily to give the police powers to direct potentially infected persons for screening, and the Health Protection Regulations, which are designed to break up gatherings and target people who are outside their home without a “reasonable excuse”.
The CPS reviewed all 231 police charges under coronavirus legislation in England and Wales up to the end of April, where the prosecution has either been stopped or ended in a conviction. Of them, only three were charged by the CPS and the remainder by the police.
The review found that none of the 44 individuals charged under the Coronavirus Act were suspected of being infected with the virus. It remains unclear why police opted for this law when they were intending to restrict movement.
All 44 charges were incorrect because they did not cover potentially infectious people, which is what the legislation is intended for.
Most (38) of the 44 charges had been brought alongside other offences, including assaults on emergency workers, theft and burglary, Mr McGill said.
31 of the wrongful charges were withdrawn in court, with 13 wrongful convictions returned to court to be withdrawn.
The majority of offences under the Health Protection Regulations 2020 – 175 out of 187 – were found to have been correct. 12 charges under this legislation, which gives police powers to break up gatherings and fine people breaching restriction of movement rules, were wrong.
While the CPS review acknowledges the unprecedented speed and scope of the new powers given to the state by the legislation, concerns remain that there has been considerable confusion in its enforcement, with cases of police having overreached in their powers.
In response, Martin Hewitt, chairman of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, issued a statement apologising for the mistakes and reiterating the force’s commitment to “managing this new legislation as effectively as they can and to keep the public safe”. He also added that additional guidance has since been provided to police officers on implementing the legislation.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council revealed that by 11 May 2020, a total of 14,244 fines had been issued by police forces in England and Wales for breaches of the laws. This equates to 0.02% of the population in England and Wales.
Of the 43 regional police forces in England and Wales, the London Metropolitan Police issued the most fines, at 906.