Guest blogpost by Henry Blaxland QC: Does the buck stop? Legal liability for death from Covid

I am pleased to host this guest blogpost by Henry Blaxland QC of Garden Court Chambers.

________________________________

“If the government were an employee of mine I would have sacked them for gross negligence” – so said Anita Astley, manager of Wren Hall nursing home in Nottinghamshire, where 10 residents died from Covid-19 and 48 carers caught the virus in a three week period [1]. Ms Astley’s complaint poses in stark terms a question which has been circulating since the full and devastating extent of the consequences of the pandemic have become clear:  what, if any, legal liability does the state have for deaths caused by Covid-19?

The government has been doing its utmost to deflect any suggestion that it may bear responsibility for the consequences of its handling of and failure to prepare for the pandemic. Principally this has been achieved through a call for unity in a time of crisis, to the extent that even muted questioning of government actions by the opposition has been criticised, as witnessed by the Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s suggestion to Rosena Allin-Khan M.P. that she change her tone when, as a front line A & E doctor as well as a shadow minister, she had the temerity to ask direct questions about the government’s strategy for contact tracing and testing on the floor of the House and the Prime Minister’s rebuke to criticism of his handling of the pandemic by Keir Starmer, that this amounted to undermining trust in the government. There have also been indications that the buck is going to be passed to the government’s scientific advisers. More sinisterly, there is a suggestion that the government’s decision taken on 19th March to reclassify Covid-19 from a High Consequence Infectious Disease to a Low Consequence Infectious Disease[2], while at the same time the Health and Safety Executive downgraded the classification of Covid-19 under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 from a Group 4 to a Group 3 biological agent, was taken in order to facilitate the decanting of elderly Covid-19 patients from hospitals into care homes.

But, as the death toll among health care and care home workers continues to rise and the United Kingdom’s overall death rate per capita has become the highest in Europe, the pressure for a public inquiry is beginning to mount. If it happens such an inquiry will no doubt focus on the extent to which the high incidence of Covid-19 was avoidable and, if so, how should those responsible for failing to take steps to avoid it be held to account. Three issues are likely to loom large: 1. Whether the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) failed to act on the NHS’s own operating framework for responding to a flu pandemic; 2. The failure to provide PPE for health and care staff; 3. The practice at a critical time in the onset of the virus of discharging patients from hospital to care homes.

The starting point for consideration of governmental liability in England is the statutory duty under S.2A of the National Health Service Act 2006, which provides that the Secretary of State must takes such steps as he considers appropriate for the purpose of protecting the public from disease. This includes [3] the provision of services or facilities for the prevention, diagnosis or treatment of illness and includes a requirement to consult with the Health and Safety Executive [4]. In this context the overarching duty of the Secretary of State and state agencies in general (extending throughout the United Kingdom) is that provided for by Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights to take all appropriate steps to protect life.

In an article in the Law Society Gazette Lord Hendy Q.C. and Jane Deighton[5] have drawn attention to the provisions of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 and make the point that it is a criminal offence for an employer to fail to provide a safe place of work. They go on to note, however, that the Health and Safety Executive and local authority Environmental Health officers have so far failed to bring any prosecutions for failure to provide PPE. Indeed, because criminal liability falls on the employer, it would be the relevant NHS foundation trust or individual care home provider, who would face prosecution, rather than the DHSC or Public Health England.

Alex Bailin Q.C. has commented that a failure to provide PPE may amount to a criminal offence under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007[6]. But that again poses the question of whether liability would extend beyond the immediate employer of those affected. The offence under S.1 CMCHA is committed where the way in which an organisation’s activities is managed or organised causes death and amounts to a gross breach of a relevant duty of care. The DHSC is listed as an organisation to which the provisions of the Act apply [7]. The DHSC has a ‘relevant duty of care’ under S.2 on the basis that it has a duty to persons who are ‘performing services for it.’ There is a question, however, as to whether the provision of PPE would fall within the terms of S.3(1), which provides that: ‘Any duty of care owed by a public authority in respect of a decision as to matters of public policy (including in particular the allocation of public resources or the weighing of competing public interests) is not a “relevant duty of care”’. It is difficult to imagine that a decision about whether to provide life-saving equipment could properly be construed as a decision as to a matter of public policy, but then S.3 is intended to protect government departments from criminal liability for political decision making.

The question of criminal liability is currently under consideration in the case of at least one care home. Northamptonshire police are conducting an investigation into Temple Court care home in Kettering, run by Amicura, where 15 residents died of Covid or suspected Covid following the discharge of patients from hospital to the care home on 19th March. In determining the criminal liability of the care home for the neglect of the safety of its clients, it is likely to be impossible for the investigation to avoid considering the broader question of the liability of Public Health England and the DHSC for decisions concerning the transfer of patients from hospital[8].

In general, before any decision about criminal liability would be made, a decision will have been taken as to whether an inquest should be opened into the cause of death. That raises the critical question of the circumstances in which inquests will be opened in cases where the cause of death is Covid-19. The approach of the Coroners Courts is governed by guidance from the Chief Coroner and in Guidance 34 of 26 March, which followed immediately from the enactment of the Coronavirus Act 2020,  specific advice was provided that for the purpose of the Notifications of Deaths Regulations 2019, Covid-19 is considered to be a naturally occurring disease with the result that there will be no need for a referral to a coroner. Further, where a decision is taken to open an inquest, S.30 Coronavirus Act removes any requirement for it to be heard with a jury where the coroner has reason to suspect the cause of death was Covid-19. Guidance 37 was issued on 28 April under the heading ‘Deaths and possible exposure in the workplace’. The guidance notes that a workplace death from Covid is reportable to the Health and Safety Executive under the relevant regulations[9]. The guidance goes on to state that a death may be reported where it has been caused by a disease contracted in a workplace setting and that this may include frontline NHS staff as well as public transport workers, care home employees and emergency service personnel. It recognises that in determining the question of whether there is reason to suspect that the death is ‘unnatural’ for the purpose of the requirement to open an inquest, that it may be so if the death occurred as a result of a naturally occurring disease, but where some human error contributed to death. The Guidance then goes on to refer to higher court authority to the effect that an inquest is not the right forum for issues of general public policy to be resolved leading to the comment: ‘…an inquest would not be a satisfactory means of deciding whether adequate general policies and arrangements were in place for provision of PPE to healthcare workers in the country or a part of it.’ Advice is then given about the power to suspend the inquest in the event that the coroner considers that evidence should be obtained in relation to matters of policy and resourcing, such as obtaining adequate supplies of PPE, together with a cautionary note about the limitations on the ability to pursue enquiries as a result of the effect of the pandemic and the lockdown. In other words the Chief Coroner has sought to steer coroners away from addressing the critical question of the organisational failure to protect lives, prompting Deborah Coles, the director of the charity INQUEST,  to write to him stating that the Guidance will stymie and limit investigations into Covid-19 deaths [10]. However, as the Guidance recognises, once the low threshold of a reason to suspect that human error contributed to death is passed then coroners will be under a duty to open an inquest. If as a result of that enquiry the coroner concludes that a failure to provide PPE was a contributory cause of death then this will need to be recorded, whether or not it is accompanied by any observation on how the question of public policy impacted on the lack of sufficient PPE.

Finally, whether or not there are criminal prosecutions or a public inquiry, there is likely to be private litigation brought by those affected by the pandemic. That would not be confined to health service workers and others who have either died or suffered long term physical and mental health consequences as a result of culpable failures by their employers, but could extend to those avoidably exposed to risk, such as residents in care homes to which those infected by Covid had been discharged from hospital. Indeed a doctor whose father died in a care home is reported to be crowd funding for a legal action “to hold the government to account” [11].

Conclusion

The government has faced sustained criticism of many aspects of its handling of the pandemic. Central to that criticism has been the question of whether the government’s decision making has made the requirement to protect life secondary to economic considerations. What has to be faced is the shockingly high fatality rate in the United Kingdom among care home residents and those working on the front-line, including transport workers. That in itself establishes a prima facie case against those responsible for taking critical decisions as the pandemic has engulfed us. All the indications are, however, that any question of legal liability at a governmental level will be firmly resisted.

Henry Blaxland Q.C.

(With contributions from colleagues at Garden Court Chambers)

7th June 2020

 

Endnotes

[1] Reported in the Guardian 28/05/2020.

[2] http://www.gov.uk/guidance/high-consequence-infectious

[3] S.2(b)(iv) NHS Act.

[4] S.2(4)(a); S. 2(5)(a).

[5] https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/practice-points/personal-protective-equipment-and-the-law/5104146.article

[6] Guardian 09/05/2020.

[7] S.1(2); Schedule 1.

[8] https://www.northantstelegraph.co.uk/health/coronavirus/police-investigation-begun-kettering-care-home-closed-after-major-covid-19-outbreak-2873639

[9] Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013, which requires that a report should be made where any person dies as a result of exposure to a ‘biological agent’ and Covid-19 has been so designated.

[10] https://www.inquest.org.uk/cc-guidance

[11]  www.localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk

 

 

Guest post by Mira Hammad: Covid-19 and the right to protest: an alternative view

I am pleased to host this guest blogpost by Mira Hammad, a pupil barrister at Garden Court North Chambers. It is written in response to the guest blogpost by Rebecca Penfold and Aparna Rao, published last week.  

_________________________________

In their blogpost Rebecca Penfold and Aparna Rao look at the amended Coronavirus Regulation 7 and whether it infringes the right to protest. Regulation 7 prohibits outdoor gatherings of more than 6 people. The authors conclude (as have many lawyers commenting on this issue) that protests are unlawful under that provision. If this is so, it clearly interferes with our right to protest under the Human Rights Act.

The post goes on to consider whether this is a permissible limitation on the right to freedom of assembly and association. In the authors’ view “in order to argue otherwise, one would need to be able to show that, far from the limitation on gatherings being an unavoidable side-effect, the COVID-19 regulations are being used, or misused, as a means of silencing free expression.”

But that isn’t the test that the courts apply when it comes to the lawfulness of an interference with our human rights. In the defining protest case, DPP v Ziegler and Ors [2019] EWHC 71 (Admin), the court set itself a much more exacting set of questions.

Where a defendant is legitimately acting in exercise of her right to protest and there is an interference by a public authority, even if that interference is prescribed by law, the court still needs to ask:

  1. Whether the interference is in pursuit of a legitimate aim, and
  2. Whether the interference is necessary in a democratic society to achieve that legitimate aim.

Clearly the answer to the first question is yes. The answer to the second question is much more interesting. To answer it, the court would need to ask itself a series of sub-questions including:

  1. Is there a rational connection between the means chosen and the aim in view?
  2. Are there less restrictive alternative means available to achieve that aim?
  3. Is there a fair balance between the rights of the individual and the general interest of the community, including the rights of others?

These questions are fact specific – in other words they cannot be answered in the abstract in relation to everyprotest and every interference by the police.

For example, we can imagine a protest where all of the participants are 2 metres away from each other and wearing masks. The police then turn up, herd protestors into a smaller space and (not wearing masks) themselves get close to people to arrest them. Would there be a rational connection between the police doing that and preventing the spread of the virus? Is that the least restrictive way of preventing the spread of the virus while allowing people to protest? Where in that balance are the rights of the individuals?

We can see these are not cut and dry questions.

Nor is it a simple answer to point out, as the authors do, that protestors could express their views in other ways, on Twitter for example. As the Court of Appeal has emphasised (Hall v Mayor of London [2010] EWCA Civ 817) the right to express views publicly (particularly on important issues) “extends to the manner in which the defendants wish to express their views and to the location where they wish to express and exchange their views.”

The authors also point out that there is a 28-day review on the infringement, and that the regulations are clearly being amended to relax the restrictions over time. This isn’t necessarily a definitive answer either.

The fact that we are now in a phase where restrictions have been relaxed to allow gatherings for the purposes of training elite athletes (7.2(c)) is likely to make it more difficult, not less, to show that a blanket ban on protests is necessary.

Protests are also time-sensitive, people around the world are protesting as a result of the despicable killing of George Floyd and they are protesting now. To say that protestors can wait for 28 days and see what the government has to say in its review simply doesn’t answer the question of whether the interference with their right to protest is lawful today.

Where does all of that leave us? In my view, nowhere very clear cut. The courts would have to make a decision with regard to each defendant. They would have to consider the questions above in the context of that particular protest and decide whether the interference prescribed under the Regulations is lawful under the Human Rights Act or not.

And if it is not, what does the court do then? Well, in the first instance, courts have to interpret legislation as far as possible so that it is compatible with human rights. The courts would have some options before them in this regard. Could an exception be read into the definition of ‘gathering’ or ‘activity’? Could some protests be deemed to fall into exception 7.2(f) where a gathering is lawful where it is reasonably necessary for the purposes of education (…and one could certainly argue that public education is needed on the issue of racism…)? If the courts feel that there is no possible way of interpreting the regulations so that they are compatible with human rights, then a declaration of incompatibility would have to follow.

Blanket provisions and clear-cut answers don’t usually sit well in the arena of human rights law, where the reigning principles are proportionality, balance and necessity. The extraordinary times in which we find ourselves don’t change that.

Guest post by Hannah Edwards: The clock is ticking – bail breaches and Covid-19

I am pleased to host this guest post by Hannah Edwards, who is a second-six pupil practising at Drystone Chambers.

_____________________________________________

In the chaos that Covid-19 has brought to our criminal justice system it is now, more than ever, important for practitioners to remember the fundamental principles when considering breaches of bail in the magistrates’ court.

A defendant who has been remanded on bail may be arrested without warrant if a constable has reasonable grounds for believing that they are likely to break or have broken any of their bail conditions (section 7(3) Bail Act 1976). Breach of bail, whilst arrestable, is not a standalone criminal offence.

The 24-hour time-limit

Upon arrest for an alleged breach of bail, a defendant must be brought before a magistrates’ court ‘as soon as practicable’ and in any event within 24 hours of arrest (section 7(4) Bail Act 1976). The hearing need only be before a single justice. Sundays, Christmas Day, and Good Friday do not count for the purposes of this time limit (section 7(7) Bail Act 1976). All other public holidays do count. In practice this means that if a defendant is arrested at 11am on a Saturday, the time limit expires at 11am on the Monday. If a defendant is arrested at 11am on a Sunday, the clock does not start ticking until the Monday (12:01am) and expires at midnight on Monday.

What must happen before the clock stops ticking? Is it sufficient for the defendant to be brought to the court cells within 24 hours? Or, for the case to be called on but the breach not yet determined by the magistrates?

The caselaw

In Governor of Glen Parva Young Offender Institution, ex parte G [1998] QB 877, the defendant was arrested for a suspected breach of bail and taken to the cells of a magistrates’ court within 24 hours. Despite being at court, the defendant’s case was not brought before a magistrate until two hours after the expiry of the 24-hour time-limit. The Divisional Court held that the requirements of section 7(4) were not satisfied simply by bringing the defendant within the precincts of a magistrates’ court: the defendant must be brought before a magistrate. Failure to meet the 24-hour time-limit must result in the defendant’s immediate release from custody; any continued detention is unlawful (per Simon Brown LJ at p. 298).

In R (Hussein) v Derby Magistrates’ Court [2001] 1 WLR 254, the Divisional Court examined whether a District Judge had power to entertain breach proceedings where the matter had been put back in the list by a justice already seized of the matter. The defence argued that the police power to detain the defendant under subsection 7(4) is limited to bringing the defendant to court as soon as practicable and, upon doing so, there was no power to detain the defendant thereafter. The District Judge therefore had no power to entertain the breach proceedings because there was no power to adjourn or to remand the defendant in custody. Whilst in principle this makes sense, the Divisional Court preferred a more pragmatic approach. The Divisional Court recognised that breach of bail was a unique situation in which speed of determination is of the essence; section 7(5) should not be interpreted as requiring the procedural rigidities that are appropriate for a formal hearing but often conducive to delay (para 30). Consequently, the District Judge did have jurisdiction to entertain the breach proceedings (para 31). The Divisional Court did not need to examine the 24-hour time-limit because the final breach proceedings had concluded within 24 hours of arrest.

The principal authority on the 24-hour time-limit is R (Culley) v Crown Court sitting at Dorchester [2007] EWHC 109 (Admin). In Culley, the Divisional Court examined a situation in which a hearing to determine a defendant’s alleged breach of bail had commenced within the 24-hour time-limit (unlike Glen Parva) but was not completed before the expiry.  After reviewing various authorities, including Glen Parva, the Divisional Court held that a justice is required to complete the required investigation and make a decision within the 24-hour period. Even if the hearing has commenced but not yet concluded, the continued detention of the defendant becomes unlawful from the moment the 24-hour period has expired. Any decision to remand the accused in custody after that time, is ultra vires and unlawful (per Forbes J at paras 19-20).

Most recently, in McElkerney v Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court [2009] EWHC 2621 (Admin), the magistrates’ court had called on the case within 24 hours of the defendant’s arrest but the justice had not yet reached a decision before the expiry of the time limit. The justice continued the hearing despite the expiry of the 24-hour period and remanded the defendant in custody. An application for habeas corpus was made to the Divisional Court. Prior to the application being heard, bail was reconsidered by the magistrates’ court and a fresh decision to remand the defendant in custody was made. The Divisional Court was critical of the decision in Culley and noted that ‘it is not on the face of it a requirement that the justice’s decision be reached within that 24-hour period’ (at para 10). Importantly, this comment is obiter; the Divisional Court clarified that ‘no decision is required on the point in the present proceedings’ (para 11). No decision was required, because of the re-consideration of bail at the subsequent hearing.

Conclusion

The decision in McElkerney is often incorrectly cited as authority for the proposition that, provided the magistrates’ court have started to deal with the breach of bail, it need not be resolved within the 24-hour period. This is incorrect. It is not sufficient for a magistrates’ court to call on the matter at 10am, ostensibly starting the hearing in the belief that it has satisfied section 7(4) and adjourning it until later in the afternoon once the 24-hour period has expired. Culley remains binding and the entire decision-making process under subsection 5 must be concluded within the 24-hour period.  If not, then the defendant must be immediately released and any continued detention is unlawful.

This time-limit is even more important during Covid-19 when technology causes delays in the virtual hearings and matters are often put back in the virtual list. Note to practitioners – keep an eye on the clock!

Hannah Edwards, Drystone Chambers, June 2020.

Guest post by Rebecca Penfold and Aparna Rao: Covid-19 and the right to protest

I am pleased to host this guest post by Rebecca Penfold of St John’s Buildings and Aparna Rao of 5 Paper Buildings.

___________________________________________________________

The death of George Floyd has sparked a wave of protests from Minneapolis to Manchester, Los Angeles to London. Never before has the international community been subject to such restrictions as those now felt during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This note is intended to give a practical overview of the right to protest whilst under ‘lockdown’.  What rights do individual citizens have to protest, whilst subject to lockdown restrictions in England?

 

Overview

The right to protest is a human right. It cannot be abrogated except in accordance with law. But a global pandemic of a life-threatening virus creates some unprecedented problems for both protesters and law enforcers.

Indeed, many fundamental lawful rights have been limited by our legislative responses to COVID-19. For example, several rights contained within the European Convention on Human Rights (‘ECHR’):

  • The right to liberty has been qualified by the need to detain persons for the prevention of the spreading of infectious diseases (as anticipated by Article 5(1)(e)).
  • The right to a fair trial (Article 6) has been qualified by remote video hearings taking place, at least at the start of the lockdown, for all practical purposes in private, and by changes to the way in which witnesses can “attend” and give evidence.
  • The right to manifest religion or belief (Article 9), and the right to marry (Article 12), have both been limited while people have been prevented from attending places of worship.
  • Article 15 (derogation in time of emergency) has been invoked by several countries during COVID-19. To date, the United Kingdom has not done so.

Articles 10 and 11 of the ECHR are, it would seem, unintended victims of COVID-19. This note concludes that the freedom of assembly and association is limited in significant ways during these very unusual times. However, the limitations are slowly being relaxed, and seem to mirror the fluctuating severity of infection rates in England.

 

Law

Freedoms in the ECHR

The ECHR provides what is often called a ‘right to protest’, in Article 10 “Freedom of expression” and Article 11 “Freedom of assembly and association”.

Despite the ‘European’ element, Brexit does not stop us from being able to exercise these freedoms.

Neither Article 10 or 11 are ‘absolute’ rights.

Article 10(2) sets out the limits to the freedom of expression: “The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary”.

 Article 11(2) sets out the limits of peaceful assembly: “No restrictions shall be placed on the exercise of these rights other than such as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. This article shall not prevent the imposition of lawful restrictions on the exercise of these rights by members of the armed forces, of the police or of the administration of the State”.

 

Police powers in England

These powers were in place before COVID-19 and continue to be in force:

The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1986 (PACE) created a legislative framework to protect both the police and the public in the exercise of police powers.

Stop and search powers. Section 1 of PACE (stop and search powers) can be exercised during a protest. Police can stop and search any individual, generally if they have reasonable grounds to suspect that the individual is carrying drugs, weapons, stolen property or something that could be used to commit a crime. Police must also provide to the person being searched various details such as name and station, and the reason for the stop and search. These rules apply to protest and non-protest situations alike.

Ability to request details. The police can also stop an individual and ask for their details, but there is no positive obligation in law to comply. The individual can move away from the police officer; this does not give the police the power to arrest and/or search that individual. However, providing false details can be a criminal offence (obstructing a police officer, s.89 Police Act 1996, with a maximum penalty of a fine and/or one month’s imprisonment).

Power to require details. The police can specifically ask for an individual’s personal details under s.50 of the Police Reform Act 2002. Failure to give details, or the giving of false details, is a criminal offence (for which the maximum penalty is a fine). The police can only lawfully exercise the s.50 power if they hold a genuine and reasonable belief that the individual has been engaged in anti-social behaviour (defined as behaviour that causes or is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to one or more persons not of the same household).

Arrest powers. Section 24 of PACE provides a general power to arrest without warrant anyone who is, or who the officer has reasonable grounds for suspecting to be, about to commit an offence or anyone who is, or who the officer has reasonable grounds for suspecting to be, in the act of committing an offence.

Wider powers relating to assemblies. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 broadens the powers of the police and is often used when large-scale events, such as protests, are organised. It is intended to prevent serious violence. If a sufficiently senior officer gives authorisation under s.60, the police can stop and search any person or vehicles within a specified area and time frame, without any requirement for suspicion or reasonable grounds. Any failure to stop is a criminal offence (maximum penalty is a fine and/or one month’s imprisonment).

Removal of items concealing identity. A s.60AA order gives police the power to require an individual to remove and surrender any item “which the constable reasonably believes that person is wearing wholly or mainly for the purpose of concealing his identity”. In the COVID-19 world, wearing a face mask while at a protest may have a very different, and legitimate, purpose. However, this law has not been amended to take account of this. Failure to remove such an item is a criminal offence (maximum penalty is a fine and/or one month imprisonment).  If a s.60 authorisation is in place, a section 60AA order automatically follows. If no section 60 authorisation is in place, a stand-alone section 60AA notice can be authorised.

Conditions on processions and assemblies. The police can impose conditions on protests through s.12 (public processions) and s.14 (public assemblies) of the Public Order Act 1984. These conditions can limit the number of people involved, the location and its duration. Under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, the police can obtain powers of dispersal, forcing people to leave and not return to a certain place within a specified time frame. Again, further criminal offences attracting imprisonment flow from any failure to comply.

It remains to be seen whether any such case-specific authorisations or conditions will be made for upcoming protests.

 

Lockdown laws

It is worth noting that the ‘lockdown’ laws vary throughout the UK. This article focuses on the law as applicable in England.

Until 31st May, the relevant aspects of the ‘lockdown laws’ in England were:

  • Regulation 7 of the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 (as amended), which criminalised gatherings of 3 or more people in a public place. Under the Regulations, Police have the power, if considered necessary and proportionate, to direct a gathering to disperse, to direct people in a gathering to return home, and to use reasonable force to remove a person to their home;
  • Regulation 6 also criminalised being outside of one’s home without ‘reasonable excuse’. Specific examples of reasonable excuse are included, such as to exercise, but the defence is not exhaustive.

 

On 1st June, the Regulations were further amended and relaxed as follows:

  • Regulation 7 now prohibits outdoor gatherings of more than 6 people.
  • Regulation 6 prohibits anyone from staying overnight, without reasonable excuse, any place other than the place where they are living.

Schedule 21 of the Coronavirus Act 2000 is important to note. This law is unlikely to come into play in these circumstances as there is a requirement for an officer to have reasonable grounds to suspect one is a ‘potentially infectious person’. Nevertheless, we should all heed Government advice and ‘stay alert’, as there have been multiple instances of the police and CPS wrongly charging offences under this Act.

 

What does this mean for protests?

The effect of the lockdown laws is that, as of 1st June 2020, a gathering of 7 or more people outdoors is unlawful. It does not seem to matter that the purpose of that gathering is the exercise of a lawful right, nor does it matter if all pre-COVID-19 laws are being followed in respect of the specific protest.

It is important to note that the “2 metre” concept and other ‘social distancing’ measures are just guidance. They are not legal requirements.  So, P1 protesting 2m apart from P2 could still mean that both are breaking COVID-19 laws.

According to regulation 7(3), there is a gathering when two or more people are present together in the same place in order to engage in any form of social interaction with each other, or to undertake any other activity with each other.

A protest would fall within “any other activity”. So even if you go out to protest “by yourself”, if you are there as a result of an organised activity and others are also present doing the same activity, this would be a “gathering”. To adopt any looser interpretation would be to defeat the purpose of the regulations. For example, it would allow unlimited numbers of people to “individually” attend a movie being screened in a park, each “by themselves”. The purpose of the regulation is to confine group meetings to small numbers of people; if one of them is infected, this slows the exponential progression of the virus.

Thus, a protest with more than 6 people, who are physically near each other for prolonged periods of time, even if many are trying to maintain a 2m distance from each other, would likely be a breach of regulation 7.

Is this a permissible limitation on the right to freedom of assembly and association?

In order to argue otherwise, one would need to be able to show that, far from the limitation on gatherings being an unavoidable side-effect, the COVID-19 regulations are being used, or misused, as a means of silencing free expression.

The decisive factor here is the “public safety” and “protection of health” exception in Article 11(2). This is highly likely to be sufficient to justify the infringement of Article 11(1) created by regulations 6 and 7. Moreover, the restriction is only on geographically-specific physical assembly and association. Article 10 freedoms are largely unaffected except insofar as they can only be exercised by physical gatherings. The regulations are not a restriction on expression of views in other ways, e.g. via news websites and papers, social media, advertising, videos, telephone, or letter.

Bearing in mind that there is a 28-day review on the infringement, and that the regulations are clearly being amended to relax the restrictions over time, it is unlikely that the “right to protest” would triumph over these temporary restrictions.

Disclaimer: This article is intended as an overview of the law. It is not legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Law accurate for England at the time of publication. Coronavirus-related laws change regularly.

COVID 19: A PROTOCOL TO ASSIST SOLICITORS WHO ARE WORKING REMOTELY AND ADVISING SUSPECTS IN RELATION TO POLICE INTERVIEWS

I am pleased to publish a protocol for solicitors advising suspects at police stations during the COVID-19 crisis. It has been drafted by Keir Monteith QC, Lucie Wibberley, Patrick Roche and Vicky Meads.
The starting point is  no one should put themselves at risk…. the opening paragraph states:
  1. We need to act now to protect the lives of solicitors who are called to a police station and the lives of suspects who require representation. In short, solicitors should not be required to attend police stations and suspects should only be detained and interviewed in the most serious of cases.

Thereafter the protocol provides advice and assistance on the difficult decisions that are now having to be made including: whether to attend the police station, should there be an interview; if so should a prepared statement be served immediately or post event. Where possible, the authors have made reference to helpful codes of practice, a Home Officer Circular and case law.

The bigger picture is that there needs to be a joined up Government approach that provides consistency from arrest to final disposal – a proper triaging of cases.

 

Comments and observations are encouraged.
The protocol can be found by clicking on the link here.

Lives are being put at risk by the intransigence of the government and the courts. Jury trials must be suspended immediately.

UPDATE: At 8am on Monday 23 March 2020, the Lord Chief Justice announced a suspension of new jury trials. The details are vague, and hint at a resumption “where specific safety arrangements have been put in place”, but for now, at least, it seems as if a level of sense has prevailed. Regrettably the announcement came far too late to reach many jurors, who will have already embarked upon needlessly risky travel by public transport, but joined up thinking has never been part of the justice system’s core values.

 

Today, thousands of citizens of England and Wales will attend their local Crown Court in answer to a summons compelling them, under threat of imprisonment, to do their civic duty and serve on a jury.

They will queue with dozens of other strangers to be herded into a packed jury waiting room. Once selected for a jury panel, they will pile into a dirty, windowless courtroom and sit next to each other for five hours a day. At lunch they will mingle with the hundred or so other jurors in the building. At the conclusion of the trial, they will shuffle into a tiny unventilated retiring room, where they will make a decision which could ultimately determine whether somebody spends years of their life in prison.

This is because, even though the government has closed schools, restaurants, pubs, cafes and leisure centres, one area of public life in which, to quote a government minister, we are “operating normally”, is in the criminal courts.

So while Scotland and Northern Ireland have temporarily suspended jury trials, in England and Wales the Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland and the Lord Chief Justice have decreed that jury trials lasting up to three days – estimated to be 75 per cent of trials – must take place.

They will do so in filthy conditions where lack of hot water, soap and paper towels is widespread; where broken hand dryers and leaking toilets and burst pipes and crumbling roofs and walls are par for the course; conditions which in the good times we in the courts accept as a permanent feature of a chronically underfunded justice system, but which in the current climate present a far more alarming proposition.

Criminal courts are, basic sanitation aside, a petri dish. Scores of defendants are piled into waiting areas. Most travel by public transport; some travel in “sweatbox” security vans from our infested, overcrowded, virus-rivenprisons. Defendants and their families mix with their barristers, who mix with court staff, who mix with witnesses, judges and jurors, who mix with other witnesses, judges and jurors. Courtrooms vary in size and style; in some of our more antique Victorian courts, jurors are squeezed onto hard wooden benches without an inch between them, let alone the government-recommended two metres. In a fairly typical court I was in last week, the defendants, barristers, clerk, usher, witness box and jury box were all within a two-metre radius of each other.

And by insisting that the shortest trials go ahead, the government is ensuring the highest possible churn of cases; the highest possible turnover of strangers coming into contact with each other.

Over the past few days I have been flooded with messages from terrified jurors, witnesses and court staff aghast that, at a time when the government is frantically urging social distancing on the ground that “infections spread easily in closed spaces where people gather together”, they are being required by law to expose themselves to such conditions. In a closing speech last week, one of my colleagues thanked the jury for their dedication at a time when they were no doubt worried about themselves and their families. One of the jurors burst into tears.

This situation is appallingly unfair to all concerned. How on earth can jurors be expected to concentrate on their task? How can any defendant or victim of crime have faith that the twelve people trying their case are paying full attention to the nuances of the evidence, when those twelve are burdened with the knowledge that, as a direct result of their jury service, they, or someone they love, could die?

And contrary to MoJ dicta, we are not operating normally. Judges are self-isolating; defendants, jurors and witnesses are staying at home as they break out with symptoms; and trials are collapsing all over the country. The Witness Service, the organisation responsible for looking after witnesses at court, has withdrawn its volunteers. Many Crown Court judges are making no secret of their disdain for what the MoJ would wish to term a “strategy”, but which more closely resembles a tribute act to Monty Python’s Black Knight chirpily dismissing each collapsed trial as a mere flesh wound.

The official government line is that “justice is not optional”. A sweet homily, betrayed only by the evidence of the past decade, in which victims, defendants and witnesses have found their cases mishandled or delayed for years due to enormous cuts to the budgets of the police, CPS, courts and legal aid. Justice has been optional whenever financially or politically convenient.

The three-day trial rule has no public health basis behind it, other than a chipper optimism that a trial of such a length might have an outside chance of completing before too many of its core participants drop down. The three-day trials will in general concern the less serious and more straightforward criminal allegations which could realistically wait another few months without too much harm being done.

The primary reason for the intransigence appears to be Mr Buckland’s fear of being the Lord Chancellor Who Closed The Courts, a disfiguring blemish on the CV of any aspiring careerist in this Tough On Crime government. There is also a secondary, practical concern: because of cuts, we have a backlog of over 30,000 Crown Court trials and are currently trying cases for offences said to have occurred two or more years ago. The government knows that a standard two-year delay could quickly become three.

The government should adjourn all jury trials listed in the next twelve weeks. In the Autumn, when it may be safer to do so, we can resume with the adjourned cases, only with the financial firehouse turned on. Instead of running at half-capacity, every Crown Court should run at maximum; the Treasury’s largesse must be extended to the justice system so that we don’t endure the farce of perfectly usable courtrooms sitting locked and empty due to “lack of sitting days” while judges get paid to sit at home. The backlog, both Covid-caused and historic, can be blasted away.

In the meantime, of course, justice and the courts cannot halt completely. Technology may – subject to the disastrous history of IT procurement in the courts – be capable of keeping shorter hearings on the road over the coming weeks and months. Video-links and telephone hearings have a poor record in practice, but offer a theoretical throughroad. Penal policy will have to change; early release of low-risk prisoners, hugely reduced sentences for guilty pleas and a statutory presumption against imprisonment may not be popular, but have to be given serious consideration. By minimising the number of participants required to attend hearings, reducing prison overcrowding and ensuring the court estate is fit for human habitation, urgent court business can tick along until we are through the worst.

Justice need not – indeed cannot – stop. Urgent court business must carry on. But jury trials as we know them cannot continue. It is telling that, when it first published its “priorities” in “managing our response to coronavirus”, the Ministry of Justice included no reference at all to the welfare of those actually using the courts. On the day that the “three-day rule” was announced, Robert Buckland tweeted that he was cancelling his constituency surgery because of “the government’s social distancing advice”.

The Lord Chancellor, and Lord Chief Justice, need to afford jurors, witnesses and court professionals the same consideration, and recognise the human cost of their stance before any more lives are unnecessarily put at risk.

Guest post: Open Letter to Leaders of the Criminal Justice System – Call for a National Protocol

I am delighted to host this guest post by Beheshteh Engineer, a third-six pupil. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of her chambers.

Why is a functional Criminal Justice System important during a national crisis?

During a short-term national crisis, the CJS must provide two key functions:

  • To deal with urgent matters e.g. bail apps, warrants, CTLs
  • To protect the vulnerable from immediate harm.

We call for a national protocol to address how courts must work during this crisis.

We suggest the following principles for the operation of courts:

  1. The protocol must minimise the risk to the health of court staff and users, following government guidance.
  2. The protocol must allow the CJS to continue to provide its two key functions.
  3. The protocol must default to adjourning cases where the above two principles cannot be met.

Globally, many courts have begun to impose restrictions on cases (CJEU, New Zealand, Canada, some American states, have all closed courts except for the most urgent cases)

What are the current problems?

The current system presents 3 distinct problems:

  • That we are all required to self-distance, but court attendance requires the opposite, and
  • That the government has only adjourned trials with a TE of 3 days or more, and
  • That we do not currently have a set up that allows us to do most hearings remotely, thus requiring people to continue to attend court in person.

Social distancing

We are all being told to practice social distancing and as of 20 March, the government ordered bars and other shops, to close. Doctors all over social and traditional media are imploring people to stay at home. The message is clear: people should not be going out unless they are essential.

In the past week, we have seen the following: people coming to court displaying the symptoms, prisons bringing sick defendants to court, jurors/advocates/witnesses going into self-isolation, and a total lack of cleanliness, or hand gel, or soap, or masks, or hand sanitizer, or protective screens available in courts. Juniors with health issues are still attending court; those who are second and third six pupils feel they have no choice.

Government’s response

The government has adopted a halfway house approach by only adjourning trials three days or longer. Those in charge of the CJS continue to advocate ‘business as normal’ while all other branches of government sound the alarm.

The Bar leadership has said that anyone in an at-risk category or anyone who feels that working conditions are unsafe, can return cases with no ethical problems. This is welcome leadership on this issue. More is needed; those not in the at-risk category can still carry the virus, potentially infecting their own families and anyone else they come into contact with at court. Court advocates, particularly those most junior, are frightened, both for their health and their incomes

Additionally, the government has not yet put in place the resources to protect the self-employed from finding themselves without work and thus, without income. Many have children and mortgages to pay for, others have rent and basic expenses. Many of us at the criminal Bar are struggling and right now, going to court may be the only option, even if that will put ourselves and those we live with, at risk of getting the virus

Lack of investment in technology for the criminal courts

Papers in Crown Court cases are now all on DCS and the courts occasionally use video links where a defendant is in custody. Video links often fail to work, and there are insufficient video links to run the court system at even close to full capacity. Consequently, we have continued to conduct most hearings in person. There are good reasons for this; often material is not uploaded until the day of the hearing, a client has to enter a plea and instructions need to be taken. Nevertheless, the reality remains that there has not been proper investment in technology use in the CJS. As a result, it will require leadership and investment to switch to a system where many hearings are virtual.

Leadership to date on this issue has been poor. The CEO of HMCTS’s letter to the Chair of the BC on 19 March 2020 says that the senior judiciary has given guidance on encouraging the wider judiciary to use telephone and video hearings. There is also a link to this site, guidance which reads, “The decision as to how a hearing is conducted is a matter for the judge, magistrates or panel, who will determine how best to uphold the interests of justice.” This means that all courts can operate according to their own rules. We are already hearing of plenty of cases where a client’s attendance has not been excused despite a reasonable request, as well as hearings in the CC being refused to be conducted by video when there is no good reason for physical attendance.

At a time of national crisis, this is a woeful response from HMCTS and senior leaders. It is also a deeply inefficient way to run any kind of system, never mind one of such importance.

The civil Bar, family Bar as well as some Tribunals are already ahead of us on this; they either already regularly use digital technology or have implemented a new protocol. Cases have been conducted (and won!) from advocates’ living rooms. If other Bars and Courts can manage remote hearings, we can too.

How can we solve some or all of these issues?

We should be limiting the number of people going to court. We should be protecting those who have to attend court. There should be no room for courts to do things on a court-by-court basis.

We must not continue in a way that puts our health, the health of our families and the general public, at risk. Continuing as we are will only help spread the virus further.

This letter suggests that we create a national protocol – similar to a practice direction – to address how every single court should manage their work during this time of crisis. Decisions need to be centralised and as new problems emerge, decisions must be taken and publicised online. We need to use technology as much as we can.

We also have to communicate updates as clearly as possible. Recent example today: jurors being told they had to attend court tomorrow (Monday) while being in an at-risk group. The message came back that they are excused. The question has to be asked, why are we doing this on twitter? We need a clear method of communication that is accessible to all.

We know that all the various legal bodies are meeting with the Ministry of Justice to lobby them for a proper plan. We add our voices to that. These are complex problems that require a great deal of thought, creativity, and effort to resolve.

How might such a national protocol work?

Suggestions for the protocol must both address issues of law and detail the ways in which we are going to take action. It is no good having vague suggestions and leaving each court to figure out how to implement it, because that way nothing will get done. We need to address the practical issues. This letter has attempted to do so, and in doing so you may find that some ideas are simply not workable at this time. Irrespective, we have a duty to not only think hard about these matters but to publish and debate these ideas so that we can keep people safe.

We propose the following immediate rules:

  1. All trials in the Crown and Magistrates’ Courts, to be adjourned to 01 June 2020.
  2. All other hearings to be by video link OR telephone.
  3. Clients to be excused from hearings as standard.
  4. Issue of Credit to be temporarily adjusted.
  5. CTL extensions, bail applications and other urgent matters to be treated sensibly.
  6. We need a new arrangement for magistrates’ court hearings.
  7. We need a new protocol for those in custody.
  8. Should a court hearing in person remain essential, anyone in custody suspected of having the virus should not be brought to court.
  9. Protocol put in place to protect everyone at police stations

How might these things work in practice?

  1. All trials in the Crown and Magistrates’ Courts, to be adjourned to 01 June 2020 Rationale:
    1. It is important to set a fixed date for when trials might resume, even if these are later abandoned. Dates to work to focus the mind.
    2. Stage dates to be put back so that work continues.
    3. Re-arranging listing on such a scale as we are seeing even if it remains just those with TE 3 days or more, is going to take time and proper thought. We should not do this on the fly otherwise there will be chaos.
    4. Such re-listing then needs to be properly communicated to all parties and should take into account advocates’ diaries, so that they do not lose out.
    5. If all hearings are virtual and all clients excused as standard this saves 100s of hours of manpower – all that then needs to be done is for clients to be told that they don’t need to attend court.
    6. If this is the default position, then hearings can continue in a way that avoids an advocate having to announce that they are in at at-risk group or are scared of attending court or who have some other legitimate reason.
    7. This also helps to preserve income, an important point. Many of us working in the CJS are self-employed; we need to attend hearings so we can get paid. We are not currently being afforded much support from the government.

    How might this work in practical terms?

    1. Listing are obviously the point people to arrange virtual hearings and will need to find a sensible way to schedule hearing times. This is done in the crown court and it can be done in the magistrates. Cases should also be re-fixed to accommodate advocates’ diaries so those booked to have trials do not lose out.
    2. Each court has to work out what technology they will use: skype, Teams, something else? Many barristers and HHJs are working together to try and figure out what works but we need a proper system. Also, I’m not PC users are having difficulty with skype for business. We are going to waste hours in court, at risk to our health, if we’re all trying to figure this out on the day.
    3. Once each court has figured out what tech they can use, this has to be communicated clearly on a single website acting as one point of reference.
    4. Chambers and Solicitors firms already have a list of emails and contact numbers for listing offices. These should be shared with advocates so that they can send individual email sand track hearings themselves [without the middle man] to ensure that matters are arranged sensibly and to take into consideration whether or not an advocate can do a telephone or video hearing or if other provisions need to be made.
    5. We should also share email addresses of those advocates at the CPS down to do a particular hearing so that CPS and defence can communicate in advance and so that the Crown can/attempt to upload relevant papers onto DCS in good time.
  2. All other hearings to be by video link OR telephone
    1. Hearings that can be done by delegated powers e.g. adjournment or CMH
    2. If parties email the listing office with the issues to address, this can be passed to the requisite court on the day of the hearing, and will save time.
  3. Clients to be excused from hearings as standard.
  4. Issue of Credit to be temporarily amended:
    1. If pleas need to be taken, the parties should work together to narrow down the issues ahead of time. This requires the Crown to upload material earlier than the day of the hearing. It requires effort and forward thinking to work.
    2. Where a G plea cannot reasonably be put in, everyone is to put in a NG plea and credit must be preserved until such time as 1) CPS serve all material and 2) counsel have been able to take instructions. We need detailed guidance on this. Defendants must not lose out. Same rule to be applied in the magistrates’ court.
  5. CTL extensions, bail applications and other urgent matters to be treated sensibly:
    1. Extending a CTL should not be routine
    2. Matters should be on a case-by-case basis: e.g. *some* defendants in an at-risk group should be strongly considered for release on stringent bail conditions.
    3. For other cases (maybe DVs) where there’s no bail conditions, Crown might want to apply for some? Ensure protection of potential victims?
    4. New cases should be bailed with conditions where appropriate.
  6. For magistrates’ courts:
    1. Papers for first appearances usually only arrive on the morning of the hearing. This will be difficult to change as it is the CPS that produces these papers. If the CPS can produce these bundles the night before the hearing, that would assist.
    2. Advocates can set up video conferences or telephone hearings with clients remotely to attend on the day of the hearing. As soon as they have the papers, the conferences can be held.
    3. The only remaining issue is how to list matters in a magistrates’ court: traditionally it is whomever is ready goes on first. If hearings are being done remotely, there will have to be a system or rule in place to decide who can call in.
    4. It may well be that the legal advisor or clerk in court will have access to a system whereby they can determine who is going to be heard next.
    5. First appearances and business in the magistrates’ courts, for it to continue working ‘as normal’ will require significant thought. It may be that some of these problems cannot be overcome anytime soon. They also require effort and someone to care enough to design a system so that these can be done remotely. There is a workable solution, but it requires all parties to work together and for those in authority to have the significant desire to make it work.
  7. For those in custody (predominately but not solely in the magistrates’):
    1. Conferences should take place by video-link wherever possible. However, we acknowledge that whether a defendant is on video from prison or in custody in the cells, a video-link may not always be possible. This is both a technical and legal hurdle that may take time to address.
    2. In the interim, no one should be required to hold a conference with someone in the cells where the court does not have a glass divider. In such cases, conferences should be held in a court room or other room available so that representatives are not put at risk.
  8. Should a court hearing in person remain essential, anyone in custody suspected of having the virus should not be brought to court.
  9. Protocol put in place to protect everyone at police stations
    1. police station representatives are reporting disparity of process when it comes to being asked to rep someone suspected of having the virus. There should be a protocol in place.

Other points

Following feedback from practitioners, a few other points are worth noting:

  • Some hearings have been “saved” by use of FaceTime. Some others are suggesting Zoom. There is a range of technology available but not all of it will be secure, or available to everyone. This may well be a problem.
  • Special provisions need to be put in in place for vulnerable people: complainants, witnesses and defendants. For example, a defendant with a MH issue or lack of good internet may not have the ability to participate in a virtual hearing. The issue of what to do when an interpreter is needed, should also be considered.
  • Every step taken into a police station is fraught with areas where someone can come into contact with the virus. The custody sergeant is responsible for the safety of police station representatives yet often a representative is taken immediately to a consultation room so there’s no option to speak to the custody sergeant unless it is insisted upon. We’re also being told that areas in the police station (the consultation room, amongst others) are not being regularly cleaned.
  • Prisoners should be considered for release, where appropriate.
  • If the plan is to keep courts open for as long as possible, there needs to be a nation-wide rollout of soap, hand sanitizer, wipes and a proper cleaning regime in place.

Conclusion

It is the case that with many of these things, what will suffer is the principle of open justice. That is a dilemma that needs to be thoughtfully considered.

The ideas in this letter are just one way to address matters. There may be problems with the ideas suggested – they are not perfect. But they are a start and hopefully a platform to encourage discussion.

We must work together to limit the spread of this disease while maintaining the criminal justice system.

Author: Beheshteh Engineer, junior criminal barrister (3rd six)

Views are those of the author alone, and not representative of those of her chambers.