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A Fine Example of a Broken System

Latest PostA Fine Example of a Broken System

Though it’s approaching four years since the world as we then knew, was plunged into chaos, think back to March 2020 and just how quickly everything changed almost overnight. There was an outbreak of a worldwide virus and the postulation at that time was that nobody was safe. It sounds like the film set of a Hollywood dystopian movie, rather this wasn’t limited to Hollywood, this was everywhere, including England and Wales. England and Wales like many a place has a wide-ranging diaspora, varied tiers of economic class, a democratic state with comprehensive beliefs. Nevertheless, the government was presented with the challenging task of trying to keep each one of us safe amidst an unchartered sea of uncertainty.

The principal way of achieving this was the implementation of a national lockdown. On 23 March 2020, the then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson announced a nationwide lockdown in an attempt to restrain a rapidly spreading outbreak of COVID-19. This required the halting of many sectors and ordering the public to stay at home. This was incrementally lifted and reintroduced over 2020 and 2021 in accordance with the fluctuation of infection rates.

An undoubtably flashbulb memory for us all would be the initial announcement made by BoJo, on 23 March 2020 at 8:30pm, that there was to be a stay-at-home order effective immediately, though only legally effective from 1:00pm on 26 March 2020, through The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020.

You’ll recall the slogan, Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives used across England, most notably across news bulletins, bus stops and adorning the front of the infamous lectern where Johnson and then, Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty provided nation-wide updates. All non-essential shops and services were ordered to close, and police were granted powers to issue fines, send people home and the ability to break up gatherings of people not from the same household or “support bubble”.

The British population was mandated to stay home, except for exercise once a day, shopping for essential items, any medical need, providing care to a vulnerable person, or travelling to work where the work in question was considered essential and could not be performed from home.

Unfairly targeted

However, it would seem that not all laws are created equal. A study, considered by The Guardian, was based on in-depth interviews conducted by the University of Liverpool, as well as report was commissioned by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) and conducted by academics at the University of Edinburgh.

The study lends itself to findings that institutional racism probably affects how the pandemic powers were executed in some instances. Ironically, this was taking place in and around the time of the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, following the unnecessary murder of George Floyd.

Officers had been equipped with hastily drafted powers to fine people without good excuse for not being at home as instructed by the government. Some officers (thinking in a similar vein to stop and search) spoke of believing certain minority ethnic groups of being more likely to defy the rules, without having any foundation for this belief. Some officers also focused on minority ethnic groups more usually on the receiving end of police attention as potential suspects.

 

Last resort or lasting legacy?

It has been suggested that police chiefs wanted fines issued as a last resort, with people coming under suspicion encouraged to obey the rules before any fine was issued. The approach police took, according to the study, “legitimised a differential approach to enforcement that reflected pre-existing biases in policing, including biases in beliefs about which types of people are more likely to break the rules and deserve and require punishment to secure their compliance with the restrictions, yet the vast majority of Covid fines were issued to young people, with students and ethnic minorities disproportionately affected.

An argument has been made that minority ethnic people were more visible to police because they lived in “poor” or “problematic” areas where police presence tends to be higher. In addition, more likely to live in smaller, overcrowded homes, with less outdoor spaces. So, when it is easier to find what you’re looking for, did it become easier to fine what you’re looking for?

Despite the figures indicating that a total of 124,771 fines were issued up to October 2023 for violation of pandemic rules, almost half – 54,122 – remain unpaid, totalling £16.7 million in fines. In some cases, individuals owing more than £10,000, with their cases pursued through the courts and via bailiffs.

But it is not necessarily about whether the fines themselves were too high or disproportionate, and there is certainly an argument to be made for that. But attention must be given in respect of just who was systematically more likely to be issued a fine. The ideology is that law is the law, and it governs the land, therefore its enforceability should span the breadth of that same land. So why is it that ‘Fines for breaking Covid rules were three times more likely to be handed to black people than white people, and seven times more likely to be issued in the poorest areas than the richest’? – The Guardian, 31 May 2023. Food for thought perhaps, or simply a reflection of entrenched views of certain communities by law enforcement.

Time has since revealed that some of our elected government officials on occasion were flagrantly defying the very rules they edicted, the same rules they made sanctionable. However, did they feel the same impact of sanctions as those from the poorest areas? Think of it this way, the strike of the iron fist is more devastating when striking against wood as opposed to striking against concrete.

Now think about it even further, how much more impactful is such a hefty fine for someone who can’t afford it in the first place, the Guardian describing that ‘those in the poorest areas were seven times more likely to be fined’, meaning in a roundabout way, even more funds removed from the communities who need it most, especially when members of those communities may be in receipt of low incomes and/or undertake low paid employment.

“The law applies equally to everyone”

Surely, this is contrary to the rule of law. Whilst there are variations on the definition of the rule, the principle remains steadfast, On Monday 10 July 2023, the Attorney General Victoria Prentis KC MP delivered a speech to the Institute for Government titled ‘The Rule of Law and Effective Government’, and described  “The rule of law is the principle that the law applies equally to everyone, that no one is above the law, and, in particular, that the Government must comply with the law and that power is not exercised arbitrarily. It requires that all persons have access to courts that are independent. These courts must resolve disputes objectively in accordance with legal principles. Laws should be accessible, intelligible, clear, and predictable.”

In its simplest form, the rule of law means that “no one is above the law”. For the rule of law to be effective, there must be equality under the law, the management (or mismanagement depending on how you wish to view it) of Covid sanctions does not strike as in keeping with rule above.

Dr. Martin Luther King said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny.” Spoken in 1963, but still as relevant today.

Jamil Mohammed and Christina Warner, 33 Bedford Row

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