Months after England’s last lockdown, why are courts still pursuing Covid breaches?

n February, police officers approached 58-year-old Lorraine Kent as she sat at the double doors by the underground car park of a Tesco in Streatham, サウスロンドン. They asked her to explain herself. Kent wasn’t wearing a mask, or “adhering to Covid-19 guidelines”. It was clear she was begging. During their conversation, a passerby had offered some money. ケント, who lives in sheltered accommodation, was issued with a £200 fine. It wasn’t a sum she had the means to pay.

六月に, Westminster magistrates court ordered Kent to pay £2,500 in further fines and costs in absentia. It remains a mystery exactly what such a punitive outcome was supposed to achieve in the name of public health – or for a vulnerable woman already experiencing destitution. Her case is by no means unique.

Kent’s fine was handed down in the teeth of the third national lockdown. The restrictions she was charged with breaching no longer exist – and are apparently unlikely to return. So why was her case rammed through the already desperately stretched court system, and where does extorting money from the poor factor into “public health”? It is a strange form of deterrent, let alone justice, that focuses on aggressively fining those who are unlikely to be able to pay.

Fixed penalty notices came into force in March 2020 with the Coronavirus Act, a sweeping piece of legislation that drastically expanded the state’s power to command and coerce its citizens. It’s estimated that more than 100,000 罰金, ranging from £200 to £10,000, have been handed out since the act was passed, for anything from failure to wear a face covering to exercising too far from home. There was a steep increase in the numbers of fines issued during the winter lockdown, as police ramped up enforcement. It is these cases, six months on, that are now trickling through a court system in a world almost unrecognisable from the one where they were issued.

Among the cases recently brought before London courts, there is one involving a 40-year-old man who was given a £1,300 fine for refusing to wear a face mask in a Post Office in February. Or the seafood chef handed a £1,200 bill for serving food and drink to customers that same month. These cases, and many others, are being tried in closed courts, obscuring the full extent of the criminal justice system’s pursuit of lockdown misdemeanours.

It’s not as if the courts are short of work. 六月に, the Ministry of Justice released figures showing that outstanding crown court cases had increased 45% in a year, to the highest levels on record. Magistrates court cases – like the one where Kent received her judgment – were up by 400,000, a rise of 21% 前年に. In a system where the number of sexual offences cases awaiting trial has risen by 67% in a year, the pursuit of pandemic misbehaviour seems wrongheaded.

The lack of transparency should ring alarm bells for anyone interested in equitable justice; early data suggests the burden of punishment is falling hardest on communities who can least afford it. 7月に 2020, analysis by the National Police Chiefs’ Council showed that young black, Asian and minority ethnic men were twice as likely to be fined under lockdown rules than their white counterparts. 水曜日に, a newly released report by the Scottish Police Authority found that those living in the poorest areas of the country were five times more likely to have received a fixed penalty notice than their more affluent counterparts. Fine rates, the authority discovered, increased rapidly with deprivation. But punishment isn’t merely financial: for some, the taint of a criminal record remains long after a fine is paid or rescinded.

Perhaps law and order approaches to lockdown misdemeanours served some limited purpose: it’s tough to feel much sympathy for Kensington rave organisers, 例えば. But a wantonly broad application of “public health” legislation has quickly descended into the punishment of vulnerable people, and many Covid fines appear little more than an exercise in overzealousness and futility. 4月中, the Evening Standard reported that of the £3.6m worth of fines handed out for breaches of Covid regulations in London alone, only £500,000 had actually been collected. Of the cases that do reach open court, 27% were found to have been incorrectly charged – a figure that is likely an underestimate, because many are reluctant to take a fixed penalty notice to court due to the fear of potential conviction.

This absurdity of many Covid fines hasn’t passed by entirely unremarked. In late spring, MPs on the joint committee for human rights recommended a review of all Covid fines issued in England. Their suggestions also ran to scrapping criminal records for FPNs and introducing a new mechanism for appealing them. It was an unfair system, the MPs concluded, that often criminalised poor people over those who were better off. But the criminal justice system has seemingly ploughed on regardless, pursuing frivolous action against vulnerable people in the misguided belief that it’s possible to punish our way out of the pandemic.

As normality returns, the myth of the pandemic as a unifying, collective experience has come to seem increasingly threadbare. The impact of the virus was never spread evenly; nor are the state’s reprisals.

Lorraine Kent was given until 28 July to settle the £2,500 bill she would probably never be able to afford. At no point did she enter a plea, or engage with the court process. It took seven weeks for the details of the “persistent beggar’s” convictions to be released to the press. Precisely what or who her punishment is meant to deter remains unclear.

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