Coronavirus Legislation: When am I committing a criminal offence?

March 31, 2020, By

Our Head of Crime & Regulatory, Rachel Fletcher, takes us through what may happen if you are accused of a criminal offence by breaking the restrictions of The Coronavirus Act 2020.

Recent days have seen police forces across the country issuing summons for offences relating to the new coronavirus legislation. This has been enacted as an emergency measure, its aim, to protect the public.  Social media posts indicate that there are many misconceptions about what we can legally do.

What does the Coronavirus law say?

The legislation says that you may not leave your residence without reasonable excuse.

What is a reasonable excuse?

The term ‘reasonable excuse’ is not defined but the legislation gives a non-exhaustive list of 13 examples including the following;-

  • Obtain basic necessities including food and medical supplies for people in your own home or for vulnerable persons
  • Take exercise alone or with members of your household
  • Seek medical assistance
  • Provide care to vulnerable people
  • Donate blood
  • Attend a funeral of someone from your household or a close family member and in some circumstances that of a friend
  • Participate in legal proceedings

These do not apply to a person who is homeless.

What will happen if I leave the home without a reasonable excuse?

If you breach the regulations you can either:

  1. Receive a fixed penalty notice of £60 (reduced to £30 if paid within 14 days)
  2. Expect to receive a court summons. If you are convicted or plead guilty to the offence you will have a criminal record. The offence itself is a summary only offence (see FAQs for detail) and punishable by a fine

What can I do, but probably shouldn’t be doing?

  • Going shopping with other members of your household
  • Leaving the house multiple times a day
  • Leaving the house for lengthy periods of time
  • Going for a drive
  • Exercising anywhere you cannot reach on foot
  • Leaving the house to buy non-essential items

We all have a social responsibility to follow government advice.

Leaving the house inevitably increases your risk, not only of coming into contact with the virus but also of having an accident and requiring the assistance of the emergency services who are already over stretched. Therefore, whilst the above behaviours are not illegal, you should consider your actions carefully and the associated risks with carrying out these non-essential activities. Your behaviour ought not to be guided by the law but by your morals and your ethics.

Could I get a criminal record?

While the guidelines of the coronavirus legislation are broad and quite vague in some respects, we need to be using our common sense in these difficult times.

Should you be found to be in breach of any of the ‘reasonable excuses’ to be out of the home, you may be subject to a criminal conviction and a criminal record. This is likely to depend on the extent of which you are going beyond the regulations.

If you are issued a fixed penalty notice, you can avoid any potential criminal liability by paying a fine of £60 (or £30 if paid in 14 days).

A lot of power has now been handed to the police in enforcing this, so the penalty for breaching these regulations is essentially in their hands.

Not all enforcement of this law is correct, through. For example, a woman who was fined £660 had been wrongly charged with a crime under this new Coronavirus legislation. Having been kept in police custody for two full days between an arrest and a court hearing, at which she was not even present, the judge fined her and ordered her to pay additional costs.

It has now surfaced that the woman had been suspected of a railway ticket offence but the Coronavirus Act was used to prosecute instead. The police have admitted that she was wrongfully charged under this new law.

Is this really a good use of the capacities of the courts?

As a result of this incident, new police guidance has had to be issued so that they only exercise this power where it is actually necessary.

What should I do if I receive a summons?

You should of course seek legal advice as the law is particularly defined and it seems, at least from what I have read that the police are acting outside of their powers.

It also clear that the police are acting out of the scope of these regulations. The police have been given a wide discretion to implement and therefore you may have a defence to any charges laid against you.

Contact Rachel Fletcher if you require guidance on an offence relating to the coronavirus legislation.

A word from us

Everybody is struggling and the more we stay within the regulations laid out by the Government, the sooner, we hope, we can get back to a sense of normality. Many industries are under strain at the moment, and the less unnecessary strain we can put on the Magistrates Courts, the better.

Please be mindful that we are living through a global pandemic, not just extended time off work or school. We each play a part in overcoming the spread of this disease, so please, if it is not necessary, stay at home.

If you require any other legal support in light of Coronavirus, head over to our legal support hub for information and contact details.