While Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer await the police’s judgment, there has been no end to the fines issued to others caught by their lockdown rules. At last count, some 136,000 fixed penalty notices had been issued in Britain. Durham police – a fairly easygoing force by Covid standards – have handed out just 1,090. Is it a bit mean to fine someone for having had a glass of wine or a beer at work? Perhaps. But no more so than the fines still being issued under the lockdown rules that Johnson and Starmer both voted through.
A student in Leeds was fined £10,000 for organising a snowball fight. A beggar was fined £434 for having his cap out at King’s Cross station. A homeless man was arrested at Liverpool Street station for being outside ‘without a reasonable excuse’. Staff at a London chip shop were told to attend a ‘business meeting’ during the second lockdown, when work meetings were allowed. They all received a fine because the police decided the meeting could have been held online. A Devon landlord held a Christmas gathering for staff on the same day as the Downing Street Christmas bash – and received a £4,000 fine.
Rules are rules: for some, at least. The police won’t investigate any more offences, but the backlog is such that the cases keep being heard in magistrates’ courts and fines keep coming. No one in 10 Downing Street, meanwhile, has been charged more than £50.
In each lockdown case, the defendant can enter a written plea. Many are heartbreaking. A 66-year-old man from Brockley said: ‘I am a sick person with heart failure and other problems. I went to the allotment to get some greens as I don’t eat meat. I’m a pensioner struggling to pay my way and in debt already – I didn’t mean to break the law.’ He was caught chatting with others at his allotment, found guilty and fined £100.
A childminder pleaded with the court that she had just ‘popped round to drop off a birthday card – I didn’t realise there would be other people present. I did not enter the property.’ Too bad: she was found chatting outside to others, convicted and fined £250. Another woman, who had reluctantly agreed to join her boyfriend for a car journey to mark his birthday, was fined twice for the same outing. She appealed against the second fine, saying she could not have walked 13 miles home after being stopped the first time. Her appeal was rejected.
Fair Trials, a legal watchdog, says many of these fines are unjust and unlawful. But the system is set up to discourage anyone from challenging them, and only 2 per cent have been contested. Challenging your fine is a daunting process – and a secretive one.
If you don’t pay your fine, you are dealt with under the ‘Single Justice Procedure’, which is designed to stop cases going to court. Cases aren’t dealt with openly but are adjudicated by a magistrate and a legal clerk. Insiders refer to this as ‘Courtroom 78’. Lists of cases weren’t made public for the first six months of the pandemic and only became so because of lobbying from reporters. Little effort is made to notify someone that they’re the subject of an SJP. If you don’t spot your letter in the post, the ‘court’ cracks on anyway. A man from Reading found out he’d been fined via his local paper.
The courts are still struggling to keep up with the lockdown laws which criminalised so much of everyday life. If the authorities do take weeks to decide Starmer’s fate, it will be understandable. Thanks to him, they have rather a lot on.
Michael Simmons on talks to Cindy Yu about Covid fines on SpectatorTV