Hundreds of people may have been wrongly convicted of coronavirus offences under a controversial system that bypasses court hearings, analysis by The Independent suggests.
Thousands of charges for allegedly breaching lockdown restrictions and rules around gatherings have been processed under the Single Justice Procedure, which sees one magistrate decide cases based largely on police evidence.
People are notified of prosecutions by letter, and can be found guilty even if they do not enter a plea.
Campaigners are calling for the practice to be stopped, and for a full review of previous prosecutions to guard against miscarriages of justice.
A letter to be delivered to the justice secretary on Tuesday will warn that hundreds or “likely thousands” of people have been convicted for coronavirus offences in their absence, or even without realising.
“Hundreds of people have been wrongly charged and prosecuted under the Health Protection Regulations and the Coronavirus Act 2020 and we are concerned that many more unlawful charges brought via the Single Justice Procedure remain unchallenged,” it will say.
“These charges and prosecutions are being brought without sufficient oversight, without any meaningful review process, and are resulting in guilty pleas and convictions for offences people have not committed, in a process they may also not be aware of. The current situation is unjust and the current process is unfit for purpose.”
Single Justice Procedure cases are not heard in open court and are not being included in an ongoing review of Covid-related charges in England and Wales, which has found around a third of prosecutions to be wrongful.
According to Ministry of Justice figures, 4,400 defendants were prosecuted and 3,500 convicted for offences relating to Covid-19 in 2020.
By the end of September, more than 1,000 of those cases had been dealt with through the Single Justice Procedure and analysis suggests that the number has now risen to at least 2,000.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) reviewed all 1,800 coronavirus cases that were heard in open court between March 2020 and March 2021.
It found that all charges under the Coronavirus Act and one in five under the Health Protection Regulations were wrong.
If the same rate is applied to the Single Justice Procedure cases the CPS did not review, at least 400 miscarriages of justice may have occurred.
The majority are believed to be for failing to pay fines under the Health Protection Regulations, but there is no official process for appealing fines without refusing to pay and risking prosecution.
A report by parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights recently warned coronavirus laws have been “poorly understood” by police, leaving enforcement “riddled with errors”.
“We are concerned that the Single Justice Procedure is an inadequate tool to provide the necessary fair trial protections for people accused of offences that are so poorly understood and lacking in clarity and where so many mistakes have been made by enforcement authorities,” the committee found last month.
In their letter to the justice secretary, groups including Fair Trials, Transform Justice, Big Brother Watch and the Howard League for Penal Reform, say the system means that the majority of prosecutions for alleged lockdown breaches had not been reviewed.
The letter, which was seen by The Independent ahead of its publication, adds: “Considering the significant rates of unlawful charges found by the CPS’ reviews, we can assume that a sizeable number of these unreviewed charges will also be unlawful.
“In order to remedy further injustice and uphold the rule of law, the CPS must review all prosecutions under both the Regulations and the Act.”
Kirsty Brimelow QC, a human rights lawyer, said the Single Justice Procedure, which was introduced in 2015, was “opaque and not easily accessible to the public”.
She told The Independent: “It is a failing of the justice system that this has been allowed to continue when the consistent misuse and misunderstanding of the Covid laws is well known.
“People likely are paying financial penalties that they cannot afford in order to avoid prosecution of offences which do not exist.”
The Magistrates’ Association said that open justice was a “fundamental tenet” of the British legal system.
Chair Bev Higgs added: “Whilst the Single Justice Procedure has some potential advantages in terms of making the justice system more efficient, there is a trade-off between efficiency and openness, as cases are not happening in a public forum.
“The Magistrates’ Association raised our concerns when the Single Justice Procedure was first introduced; these have not been satisfactorily addressed by HM Courts and Tribunals Service or the Ministry of Justice. There is a danger that unless they are, public confidence in the justice system may be damaged.”
The Ministry of Justice said the Single Justice Procedure is only used for crimes that cannot be punished with imprisonment.
A spokesperson added: “The Single Justice Procedure 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.
“All defendants can request an open hearing and have their conviction voided and reheard if necessary.”
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