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Police forces across the UK will stop issuing so-called £10,000 'super fines' over fears they could be challenged in court.
Chief constables across the UK are being told to issue court summons rather than a straight fixed penalty notice, after Home Secretary Priti Patel's harsh fines for lockdown rule-breakers were suspended.
Labour's West Midlands regional police and crime commissioner David Jamieson described the situation as "deeply embarrassing", as one of the the Tories' key new powers to enforce lockdown "has been found wanting" amid yet more confusion from Boris Johnson's hapless government.
While West Midlands Police's chief constable said the force stopped handing out the fines "last week" after concerns were raised about potential inequality between those who pay up within 28 days, and those who challenge the notices in court.
When fines go to court they are means-tested, meaning the recipient's ability to pay is taken into account.
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West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner David Jamieson said the situation was 'deeply embarrassing'
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The Government's policing minister Kit Malthouse has been asked to provide "urgent" clarification.
Mr Jamieson said the move had come about following advice being issued by the National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC).
He has now written to policing minister Kit Malthouse for a "rapid response", claiming the Government had failed to provide the police with "workable Covid legislation".
The NPCC said it issued guidance to all police forces on Friday after the "potential disparity" came to light and was "working urgently" with the Government to address the issue.
Nottinghamshire's Labour police and crime commissioner, Paddy Tipping, said he was "surprised at the guidance from the NPCC", having received a written commendation from Home Secretary Priti Patel for being the first force to issue a super-fine.
Meanwhile, Mr Jamieson said he also found the situation "deeply embarrassing" personally, having himself been an "enthusiastic" supporter of the introduction of tough rules.
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Explaining the decision at a meeting of the West Midlands strategic policing and crime board on Tuesday, the force's chief constable David Thompson called it "unfortunate" while adding alleged rule-breakers would get a court summons instead.
The force has already issued 13 of the fines, reserved for the most serious social-distancing breaches.
Mr Thompson, who is also a vice-chairman of the NPCC and its lead on finance matters, said: "I think it's unfortunate.
"It is unhelpful this issue has arisen, but actually there is still legislation.
"The point I would make to the public is we will carry on enforcing this area of the law.
"The difference is it won't be a ticket, it will be through a summons."
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Mr Thompson, who said the force had also been "a very strong supporter" of the tough measures, was asked to shed light on the suspension by the commissioner during the meeting.
He said the £10,000 amount was "unusual" for a fixed penalty notice (FPN), and it was the large fine amount where a concern had arisen.
Mr Thompson said: "The issue is – last week – the fixed penalty notice was suspended and that is because of the debate over the means by which the person can meet the cost of that fine would normally be assessed by a court.
"The level (of fine) is so high there is a concern emerging that actually levying through a fixed penalty is problematic.
"So the force has moved to a position where we will report people for a summons for this particular offence and they'll go to court through that route."
He added that the force had employed a "very tight policy" around issuing the super-fines, "because we have been very conscious a £10,000 levied fine is substantial".
Police on the streets in Newcastle as the second lockdown loomed
(Image: Andy Commins / Daily Mirror)
"We have never issued tickets where we don't have a considerable amount of evidence," he added.
Mr Jamieson also asked what the situation was for those fined who had already paid, asking "if they will be getting a rebate" or "go to court retrospectively", and those who had not yet paid.
However, the chief constable was unable to answer those queries.
The commissioner said: "The fact we were enthusiastic about helping the Government in enforcing the Covid legislation I have to say for myself – and I have been supporting it as well – is deeply embarrassing now that we have found that the legislation has been found wanting.
"It hasn't been properly thought-through.
"It has led to what I consider to be a deeply embarrassing situation and I think has in some way actually undermined some of the work our excellent officers are doing."
Central Cardiff after the Welsh firebreak restrictions were lifted and people returned to the shops
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He added: "I have written to the policing minister expressing my extreme anger this legislation wasn't properly thought-through and led us into the position we were in today."
An NPCC spokesman said: "On Friday 13 November we advised all forces to temporarily take enforcement steps by way of summons, rather than by issuing a Fixed Penalty Notice to the value of £10,000 for offences relating to gatherings of over 30 people under Covid regulations.
"We gave this advice because of a potential disparity between those who opt to pay the FPN and those who see their case reach the court where the FPN would be means tested against personal income.
"We are working with Government to urgently address this matter, and once rectified, we intend to advise that forces resume issuing £10,000 FPNs wherever appropriate."
The NPCC referred a query on where in current legislation legal authority was granted to police to deal with offences relating to rule-breaking gatherings by way of a court summons to the Home Office.
Lockdown laws 'a mess'
Coronavirus laws have been branded a "mess" after figures suggested thousands of fines have gone unpaid or were withdrawn after being challenged.
Data obtained under freedom of information laws indicated more than three in five coronavirus fines have gone unpaid in some parts of the country.
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Thousands of fixed penalty notices (FPNs) have been rescinded by police forces after being issued.
Lawyers and campaigners said the figures illustrated how chaotic the laws governing Covid-19 restrictions had become, calling for a review of the process to make sure powers were being used fairly.
Lawyer Raj Chada, head of the criminal defence department at Hodge Jones & Allen, told PA: "The mess of Covid regulations know no bounds.
"Criminal law should be clear, certain and widely adhered to – otherwise it becomes arbitrary and unfair.
"These figures show that and worse – the situation is a farce."
While Kirsty Brimelow QC, a human rights barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, said it was "predictable" people would stop paying the fines under the circumstances.
The lockdowns brought unprecedented new legislation which has since been 'found wanting'
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She said: "There is no means testing or appeal other than going to the magistrates' court.
"It was predictable that people would stop paying fines. Some cannot afford them. Others may not have broken the laws and others may just be resentful that those in power acted as if the laws did not apply to them.
"I and many others have called for panels to be set up to review the fines.
"This will help reintroduce fairness.
"Currently, it is a lottery whether you are fined and whether it will be rescinded if you write to the relevant police force.
"And it is questionable as to how effective issuing fines is to preventing the spread of the virus. Rather they are adding stress and hardship to people who already are suffering."
She said the courts are already struggling to process serious criminal cases, and asked: "Why keep laws that will add to the case backlog in court? There needs to be a standard review system that people can access – away from the courts."
Madeleine Stone, legal and policy officer at campaign group Big Brother Watch, said the figures make it "plain that there are serious failings in the way police have issued fines during the pandemic."
She added: "The laws governing lockdowns are constantly changing, complex and poorly drafted.
"It is a serious injustice that people face vast fines and prosecutions when even police forces have struggled to understand what rules the legislation contains.
"Unpaid lockdown fines are a prosecution crisis waiting to happen and demonstrate the consequence of approaching a public health crisis with criminal sanctions."
Rosalind Comyn, policy and campaigns manager at human rights group Liberty, also called for fines to be properly reviewed.
She said: "Inconsistent enforcement was an inevitable outcome of the Government's introduction of sweeping new police powers to enforce rules communicated in chaos."
Because of the lack of formal appeal process there is still no way of knowing "how many more people should have had their fines withdrawn, while many others may be facing criminal penalties for refusing to pay fines that were issued unlawfully", she added.
A Home Office spokesman said: "The rules are being enforced correctly in the vast majority of cases and those who refuse to pay FPNs may face court action and a possible criminal record.
"Throughout the pandemic, officers have policed by consent – engaging with the public and encouraging compliance, but taking action where necessary.
"We are determined to rigorously enforce the law and are strengthening enforcement by the police and local authorities, with £60million of extra funding made available for this."