Controversial £10,000 on-the-spot fines for organising banned “large gatherings” during the coronavirus pandemic should not have been introduced, MPs have said.
Parliament’s Justice Committee warned that the penalties must not be brought back if an increase in Covid cases sparks further restrictions.
Sir Robert Neill, chair of the committee, said the government needed to learn lessons from previous mistakes to decide what “model we should follow in the future”.
“That the justice approach to the pandemic was not perfect in its early stages is understandable; to fail to learn valuable lessons to better prepare for the future would be much less so,” he added.
“The speed and seriousness of the Covid-19 pandemic necessitated restrictions that we previously thought unimaginable. New criminal offences were introduced to enforce them and it is right that the government acted quickly to create them. However, it is also clear that lessons need to be learnt and improvements made.”
A report published on Friday said the government should not have “replied upon fixed penalty notices (FPNs) of increasing magnitude to deliver compliance with public health restrictions”.
Default penalties for breaking the first lockdown were set at £60, but steadily rose and the unprecedented £10,000 fines for organising gatherings of over 30 people were introduced in August last year.
At the time, the government hailed it as a “new deterrent on the breaches that put the public most at risk”, such as parties and unlicensed music events.
But the Justice Committee concluded: “A £10,000 fine for a criminal offence is a penalty so large that only a court should issue it. When a court issues a fine, it takes into account the financial circumstances of an individual; this is not the case with fixed penalty notices… the government should consider developing alternative means of ensuring compliance.”
There was no standardised way to contest coronavirus fines, other than refuse to pay them and risk prosecution.
A Crown Prosecution Service review found that 18 per cent of charges under the Health Protection Regulations and 100 per cent under the Coronavirus Act were incorrect in the first year the laws were in effect.
Where correct penalties were challenged in court, some judges reduced the fines dramatically because of the individual circumstances of each case.
The committee called for ministers to review the wider regime for coronavirus fines, following widespread confusion over gaps between criminal law and non-binding government guidance.
It cited evidence of misunderstanding by members of the public, police officers and even ministers, as law and guidance rapidly changed and diverged from each other.
“Blurring the line between government guidance and the law has potentially damaging long-term consequences, including for the rule of law,” the report said.
“In a free society that respects the rule of law, only legislation can criminalise conduct, and it should be open to a person to decide whether to follow government guidance. The government has a responsibility to ensure that the public and the police have a clear understanding of the distinction between guidance and the law.”
The Justice Committee criticised the speed at which some coronavirus laws were implemented and the lack of full parliamentary scrutiny, urging the government to review its communications practices for the future.
Members also raised concerns about the use of a controversial system that bypasses court hearings for coronavirus-related prosecutions.
Analysis by The Independent suggested that by May this year, hundreds of people may have been wrongly convicted in Single Justice Procedure cases, which are decided by a single magistrate 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.
The Justice Committee said the practice “should be reviewed to assess if it provided the appropriate transparency for new and complex offences”.
Members called for a study to be conducted by the new UK Health Security Agency to review the effectiveness of the justice response to the pandemic and “assess their appropriateness” for future use.
A government spokesperson said: “The overwhelming majority of the public have played their part to control the virus but it is right that strong deterrents were in place for those breaching the rules most egregiously.
“As the committee notes, we were justified in acting quickly in the face of an unprecedented health crisis – we have introduced measures to reduce transmission of the virus that have been proportionate and appropriate. The government will respond to the committee’s report in due course.”
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