Police should not have been given the power to hand out COVID-19 fines up to £10,000 ($11,670), a British parliamentary committee has said.
The UK government announced in August 2020 that those who organize or facilitate “illegal raves,” unlicensed music events, or other “unlawful gatherings” of over 30 people in England could face a “fixed penalty notice” of up to £10,000.
The government said this level of fine was designed to act as a deterrent and to communicate the serious public health consequences of holding such an event.
But in a report published on Friday, the Justice Committee of the House of Commons said such large fines should not be decided by a police officer or a council official, and should only be handed out by a court.
“A £10,000 fine for a criminal offence is a penalty so large that only a court should issue it,” the committee said. “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 MPs acknowledged that “fixed penalty notices” have a role in the British legal system, for example for road traffic offences, but they said, “the context of new COVID-19 offences is different from many of these offences and curtailed freedoms considered fundamental in a democratic society.”
The committee recognised that fixed penalty notices played “a valuable role” in policing during the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus pandemic. But it said, “in principle, when offences in question are complex, difficult to apply and give rise to significant sanctions, it should ordinarily be the responsibility of a court, rather than an official to determine liability.”
Committee chair Sir Robert Neill, a Conservative MP, said the new UK Health Security Agency should review the way in which the government used the criminal law during the pandemic.
He said the agency should examine the effectiveness of measures such as fixed penalty notices and “better understand whether their use was always appropriate and proportionate, and a model we should follow in the future.”
In the report, the MPs also noted “The high error rate of charges brought under the Coronavirus Act and the public health regulations,” which they said, “illustrates the importance of the need for future pandemic planning to consider the role of the criminal law.”
The committee cited evidence given by barrister Pippa Woodrow, who said 100 percent of the people who had been charged under the Coronavirus Act (approximately 250 people) had been wrongly prosecuted.
Campaign group Fair Trials told the committee that the error rate in the prosecutions was unacceptable and that these errors “are putting fundamental rights and justice at risk in this crisis and threatening trust in the criminal justice system.”
In response to the Justice Committee’s report, a government spokesperson said: “Our police forces faced unprecedented challenges carrying out the critical role of maintaining public order during the pandemic. 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.”
The spokesperson said the government’s COVID-19 measures have been “proportionate and appropriate,” but said, “the government will respond to the Committee’s report in due course.”
Lily Zhou contributed to this report.