Coronavirus prosecutions must be stopped in light of allegations government figures broke the law “with impunity” while ordinary members of the public were punished, campaigners have said.
The Fair Trials group called for the almost 120,000 fines issued so far in England and Wales to be rescinded and for all charges under Covid laws to be withdrawn.
Chief executive Norman L Reimer said: “We cannot have a justice system where people in power can break lockdown with impunity while others are prosecuted and fined.
“The government’s response to the pandemic has been to extend police powers and create a raft of new criminal offences.
“Policing has been heavy-handed, discriminatory, and in hundreds of cases, unlawful.”
Figures obtained by The Independent show that 30 per cent of the coronavirus prosecutions so far reviewed by the Crown Prosecution Service – 803 out of 2,716 – were wrongful.
Every single one of the 307 charges brought under the Coronavirus Act was unlawful, and an additional 496 were wrongly brought under versions of the Health Protection Regulations, which have been changed to enforce various lockdowns and restrictions.
Legal experts are concerned that even more miscarriages of justice may have occured in at least 5,000 closed hearings under the controversial “single justice procedure”, which the CPS does not review.
They have seen people handed huge fines for Covid offences without entering pleas or having legal representation, including several people fined £1,100 over gatherings on the same date as alleged Downing Street parties.
Kieron McArdle, who was fined £100 for having friends in his Warwickshire garden, told the Daily Mail it was “one rule for them, one rule for the rest of us” and called for fines to be returned or donated to charity.
Fair Trials said the pandemic had resulted in a “two-tier justice system” that highlighted pre-existing divisions in society.
Mr Reimer added: “While ordinary people were being fined for meeting more than one friend, those in power engaged in such conduct with impunity, while calling for others to be prosecuted.”
Evidence gathered by a parliamentary committee suggested that young people, black and Asian groups, men and the most socially deprived were most at risk of being prosecuted.
Ministers have not implemented official recommendations by parliamentary committees to ensure that people can challenge fines without ending up in court, or to review the 119,000 penalties that have already been handed out.
Sir Bob Neill, the chair of parliament’s Justice Committee, previously told The Independent he was “disappointed” that the government had reintroduced Covid fines without changing the regime.
“There seems to be an unwillingness to learn lessons from the unsatisfactory way in which Covid offences were brought in last time, and a worrying failure to appreciate that rule of law safeguards should never be traded for speed or expediency,” the Conservative MP added.
A Justice Committee report published in September called for the government to consider “alternative approaches” to enforcing future coronavirus restrictions, but the same regime was imposed for new face covering and Covid pass laws in November.
MPs also called for the government to conduct a review of the wider Covid fine scheme but the recommendation was not followed.
The committee raised concerns that people contesting fines had inconsistent responses from different police forces, and said the government “should ensure the review process enables an individual to challenge a notice without risking a criminal prosecution”. No change has been made.
Concerns about the system were raised officially as early as September 2020, when parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) said the absence of formal process for appealing fines would “invariably lead to injustice”.
Last month, chair Harriet Harman told The Independent that people who could afford to pay fines were able to avoid prosecution, while those who could not ended up with a criminal record.
“The whole process had inequality and unfair treatment baked into it, hitting the less well-off and criminalising the poor over the better off,” she added.
The Metropolitan Police has said it will not change its position on investigating Downing Street parties after allegations over two new gatherings.
The force said police “do not normally investigate breaches of coronavirus regulations when they are reported long after they are said to have taken place”.
“However, if significant evidence suggesting a breach of the regulations becomes available, officers may review and consider it,” it added.
“The Met has ongoing contact with the Cabinet Office in relation to its inquiry. If the inquiry identifies evidence of behaviour that is potentially a criminal offence it will be passed to the Met for further consideration.”