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Attorney General raised concerns about wrongful prosecution of lockdown breakers

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he Attorney General knew members of the public would be wrongly prosecuted by police when she agreed to closed-door court sessions to deal with lockdown-breakers, it has been revealed.

Police chiefs, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), and justice officials acknowledged last Spring that there would be an “error rate” in Covid-19 prosecutions when they decided to use the controversial Single Justice Procedure (SJP) to handle criminal cases.

Magistrates would sit behind-closed-doors instead of open court to hold mini-trials and police officers would bring cases instead of lawyers from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

It has now emerged that Attorney General Suella Braverman’s office raised concerns in May 2020 about the potential for mistakes being made in the SJP process, suggesting that lockdown breakers were “best suited” to be dealt with in open court.

However, despite “error rate” fears and concerns around a lack of transparency, the Attorney General – under pressure from the CPS and police – was persuaded to add Covid-19 offences to the SJP system on June 2, 2020.

“People at the highest levels of government knew that the Single Justice Procedure would result in wrongful prosecutions and yet they went ahead with it anyway”, said Griff Ferris, legal and policy officer at campaign group Fair Trials.

“They also acknowledged that prosecutions should be dealt with in open court to try and prevent this, but they still decided to use the closed court procedure. The public deserves better than this injustice which was sanctioned by the Attorney General.”

The enforcement of Covid-19 rules has been dogged by accusations of wrongful convictions and fears that police officers are misusing the laws to dish out unlawful fines.

Among those wrongly convicted in London are two Met Police officers, who were fined £4,000 for breaking quarantine rules in a case built on flawed evidence. The convictions were eventually quashed by a judge in open court when it was discovered the wrong coronavirus law had been used.

The government has resisted growing calls in the wake of the Partygate scandal at Downing Street to review all Covid-19 fines and prosecutions against members of the public.

At Westminster magistrates court, a 21-year-old from Kingston was fined £12,000 over a lockdown house party when police had already told him “case closed” and promised no charges would be brought. More than £1.5 million in Covid-19 fines have now been handed out in London alone, and Fair Trials fears as many as 25,000 people may have been wrongly fined or prosecuted across the country.

Anyone handed a Met Police fine in the Partygate scandal and does not pay the penalty is likely to end up in the same court system.

Minutes of the two key meetings on May 5 and 6, 2020 – held to decide how those who haven’t paid Covid-19 fines should be prosecuted – are revealed today after a five-month Freedom of Information battle by the Evening Standard.

The CPS had already approached Ms Braverman’s office about using SJP, favouring it over open court hearings so that police forces themselves could prosecute cases, the numbers of people in court would be limited, and its resources could be used elsewhere.

The minutes reveal the AG’s office “raised early concerns” and was worried about the “political climate due to current error rate and media attention, which may be best suited for open not closed court as offered by SJP”.

SJP was dubbed the “least worst” option in discussions between the National Police Chief Council (NPCC), the CPS, HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), and the Home Office, and it was suggested that the Director of Public Prosecutions Max Hill QC and then-Chief Magistrate Emma Arbuthnot – now a High Court judge – could be enlisted “to influence” Ms Braverman’s decision.

At the May 6, 2020 meeting, the CPS again raised the spectre of the “error rate”, and police representatives pledged to introduce a “further level of scrutiny”. It was agreed that unpaid fines would be assessed by a trained and specially-designated police officer before prosecutions would be launched.

An Attorney General spokesperson did not comment on the “error rate” concern, but said in a statement that Ms Braverman had “agreed the Single Justice Procedure was the best means to bring those who do not contest breaching Coronavirus regulations to justice efficiently, alleviating pressure on the criminal justice system resulting from the pandemic.”

In a February 2021 note to Parliament, the AG said it is “not proportionate” for the CPS to handle these prosecutions, and accepted that “errors were made by police forces using the single justice procedure”. The note does not mention that the “error rate” had been anticipated the previous May.

She went on to say “single justice procedure error workshops” had been held with officials from the police, the CPS and HMCTS to try to address the problems, and fresh guidance on the Covid-19 laws had been drawn up by the NPCC.

An NPCC spokesman said SJP helps police forces to prosecute cases “quickly and at a lower cost than formal court proceedings”, and insisted “robust processes” are in place around the issuing of fines.

“We work closely with criminal justice partners where unpaid notices are dealt with through the Single Justice Procedure to understand common themes and share best practice, as well as routine dip sampling of cases at a force level,” he said.

“This process has improved considerably as the pandemic progressed, as criminal justice partners embedded best practice.

“Where mistakes are identified, fines have been rescinded where appropriate. If any individuals are concerned about their fine, they can raise the issue with the force which issued the fine, within the payment period.”

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