May 15: UK’s police and prosecutors have said that they got the emergency laws on coronavirus wrong dozens of times, leading to scores of people being wrongly charged and convicted.
The country’s police and the Crown Prosecution Service apologised for the errors and said the rushed nature of the laws and the pressure caused by the pandemic were to blame, The Guardian reported.
Gregor McGill, the director of legal services at the CPS, said 175 people out of 231 had been charged correctly. In the other cases, people were sometimes charged under a law from a different country in the United Kingdom, such as people in England being charged under a Welsh law.
Emergency legislation rushed in by government included regulations limiting movement and how and where people associated with each other. Another legal change, the Coronavirus Act, allowed people suspected of being infected with the virus to be forcibly taken for testing.
The CPS said every single one of the 44 charges brought under that act was wrong, because there was no evidence someone was infected. Thirty-one of the charges under the act were withdrawn and 13, where people were wrongly convicted, were returned to court for some other charge.
Of those charged under the regulations stopping more than two people meeting and restricting movement, 12 out of 187 were wrongly charged. Seven cases were dropped on the day, and five convictions were later set aside.
McGill said some errors were caused by officers in England applying the Welsh rules, which are tougher, and vice versa.
Police and prosecutors say they have caught the errors and have corrected them.
McGill said: “There’s an expectation that we should get things right, and where we don’t we should apologise, be open and transparent about what’s gone wrong, and be open and transparent about what we are doing to try and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Some of those wrongly charged were charged with other offences such as assaults on emergency workers, theft and burglary. Police had faced claims of overzealousness and some officers confusing what was in the law with statements made by politicians.
The human rights lawyer Kirsty Brimelow QC said: “The results are a shocking reflection of poor leadership and guidance by police chief constables, some of whom very publicly encouraged over-zealous policing by misstating the law. In turn, the chief constables acted on the messages from politicians rather than focusing on making the law clear to the police on the street.”
Martin Hewitt, the chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said the errors were “inevitable” given the laws were rushed and not subject to the usual checks and time to brief officers.
Hewitt said: “We apologise for the mistakes … It is right that any errors have been quickly identified and are being corrected through the CPS’s review process, and are also prevented by the additional safeguards now in place. Officers have received additional guidance on the correct use of legislation.”
Cases where the Coronavirus Act was wrongly applied included someone who had driven from London to Leicester for a party. Others included drinking in a park and people who refused to go home. It was not clear that these people were infected.
The CPS said it will not put in fresh safeguards for any prosecution related to the coronavirus.
This week the rules on movement and association were loosened in England, but not in the rest of the UK.
As some police chiefs privately said the new rules were impossible to enforce, Hewitt insisted police still had a role in ensuring large groups do not gather or visit other people’s house.
Hewitt warned of more people going out this weekend amid good weather at beauty spots and beaches, with lockdown rules now eased in England. He said: “Not just parks, but all big open spaces, undoubtedly are going to be much busier this weekend.”
Hewitt said most people would behave responsibly: “None of us want to get into a situation where the virus infection spreads more, and that we have to go into tighter lockdown measures.”
The total number of fines issued since 27 March when lockdown rules became law reached 13,445 in England by 11 May, with 799 in Wales. Most were for ignoring restrictions on movement. The last fortnight showed fewer fines being issued than previous two-week periods.