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Every Fine Issued By Police Under COVID-19 Rules Must be Reviewed, UK Civil Liberties Groups Say

© REUTERS / Peter NichollsPolice detain a protester in Hyde Park during COVID-19 lockdown
Police detain a protester in Hyde Park during COVID-19 lockdown - Sputnik International
Over 14,000 Fixed Penalty Notices (FPN's) were issued by police in England and Wales between 27 March and 11 May, for alleged violations of COVID-19 lockdown rules. People can be prosecuted if they don't pay the FPNs and there is already evidence that some people have been unlawfully fined.

Civil liberties and police monitoring groups have written to Martin Hewitt, the chair of the the National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC), calling for a review of every Fixed Penalty Notice (FPN) issued by police throughout England and Wales under the COVID-19 lockdown rules. The letter was signed by representatives of StopWatch, Big Brother Watch, Netpol, INQUEST, Fair Trials, Liberty, and the Police Action Lawyers Group, among others.

The NPCC told Sputnik that it has "no plans to conduct a review of fines issued so far". They added that "If anyone believes they have been issued a fine in error – for any reason - they can challenge it at court". Martin Hewitt said that he believes current figures "show our approach is proportionate, with just 0.02 per cent of the population in England and Wales being issued a fine." He also noted that the "vast majority of people continue to do the right thing, which protects the NHS and helps save lives".

Katrina Ffrench, Chief Executive of the London-based civil liberties group StopWatch, explains why she added her name to the list of signatories.

Sputnik: What are your main concerns regarding the FPNs issued by police during the COVID-19 lockdown, and what are you calling for?

Katrina Ffrench: There's a very real concern that large numbers of the Fixed Penalty Notices issued by police under the COVID-19 powers are unfounded. We are calling for the NPCC to review all of these.

Sputnik: Your letter says that you believe "a significant number of FPNs have been wrongly issued". What is the basis of this belief?

Katrina Ffrench: First, these powers were introduced swiftly, leaving little time for police training - guidance from the National Police Chiefs' Council and College of Policing came after, not with, the introduction of the powers. As the guidance has shifted in recent weeks to a more obscure 'stay alert' message, we are concerned this may have introduced further confusion surrounding these powers.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, we have examples of these FPNs being issued inappropriately. Wiltshire Police's Scrutiny Panel have found that some FPNs had been issued here unlawfully and the force has withdrawn FPNs in response. Children have also been issued FPNs, but there is not power to do so under the regulations.

Finally, there are huge disparities in how these fines are issued - this suggests to us that police are issuing these inappropriately. For example, NPCC statistics show police in North Yorkshire issuing over 20 times more FPNs than in Staffordshire (adjusted for population size). Similarly, Asian people represent 7.8% of the population in England but received an alarming 13% of FPNs, and whilst 3.5% of the population in England is Black, 5% of those issued fines in England were Black.

Sputnik: Is it realistic to expect a review of all Fixed Penalty Notices given across the UK, are there resources available for that?

Katrina Ffrench: We believe it is both realistic and necessary.

The Crown Prosecution Service have already taken this step, and they found that every single Coronavirus Act charge reviewed so far needed to be reversed. The NPCC must undertake the same exercise, particularly considering that FPNs are issued with much lower scrutiny than the charges already reversed by the CPS. Further, individuals are likely to be reluctant to contest FPNs, as this puts them at risk of prosecution, and they may incur legal and financial risks.

We suspect many may be paying fines they do not warrant just to avoid this - only a review can assess this.

Sputnik: The NPCC has informed me that Martin Hewitt is considering your joint letter to him. In the meantime, he has said that the "figures show our approach is proportionate with just 0.02 percent of the population in England and Wales being issued with a fine".

Is he correct, and if not, why not?

Katrina Ffrench: We would be interested to understand how Mr. Hewitt came to this assessment, particularly given the examples already presented of wide geographic variation in these fines, as well as the disproportionate issuing of fines to Black and Asian people. In truth, a review is necessary to understand this situation, and we would question any assessment of how proportionate this approach has been without such an investigation.

The article was updated at 16:10 on 28 May 2020 to include the response from the NPCC stating that they would not be reviewing FPNs issued so far.

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