'Secret' court hearings to decide Covid-19 regulation breaches in Derbyshire

A slew of “secret” court hearings to decide Covid-19 regulation breaches in Derbyshire are to be heard behind closed doors.

A total of 39 alleged Derbyshire coronavirus fine breaches will be decided in rapid succession on Wednesday, June 9, followed by another 20 on June 30.

The hearings will be carried out at Derby Magistrates Court using the Single Justice Procedure, in which verdicts are decided on written submissions alone – often just a statement from the police – by a magistrate and a legal advisor.

There is no prosecutor or defence lawyer present.

The hearings will be carried out using the Single Justice Procedure

This is carried out without media or public access and the defendants involved frequently have no knowledge of the hearings, though documents can be requested after the fact.

These cases reach a magistrate if a defendant either pleads guilty or has not “engaged” in the process – has not responded to a letter informing them of the charge or submitted a plea.

Before the pandemic, the Single Justice Procedure, introduced in 2015, was typically used for vehicle licence and TV licensing fines. It was pitched as a bid to speed-up the process and save on costs.

Derby magistrates heard two Covid-19 related SJP cases in March and two more in November, with this month’s hearings representing a substantial upsurge in cases.

This may be due to the delay in cases getting to court due to a crippling backlog and also due to the increase in Covid-19 fines given out by Derbyshire police, which stepped up enforcement earlier this year.

Derbyshire police has issued more than 1,600 Covid fines since the start of the pandemic and rescinded 119 coronavirus fines.

In SJP cases, a magistrate convicts and sentences in a closed court and the defendant receives the judgement in the post.

A Crown Prosecution Service review of 1,821 Covid-related fines found 549 unlawful charges, says civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch.

Concerns have been raised about the transparency of these hearings and the need for open justice.

Last week, Big Brother Watch, a civil liberties campaign group, wrote an open letter to Government officials, saying: “The Single Justice Procedure is not an appropriate mechanism for dealing with charges under the Regulations and the Act, given the high rates of unlawful charges, and wide confusion over the details of restrictions.

“Confusion over restrictions has been well-documented, with police officers and even Government ministers routinely demonstrating that the intricacies of new restrictions are not well understood.

“The CPS’s reviews have made it apparent that magistrates have also failed to prosecute correctly and lawfully those charged under the Regulations and the Act.

“Coronavirus regulations are a complex area of law and people charged with coronavirus offences therefore need independent legal advice, and these new laws need testing. It is especially concerning that the Single Justice Procedure operates largely without the defendant having access to an independent lawyer.

“Cheap judicial process now could lead to thousands of pounds of damages in years to come and significant reputational damage to the criminal justice system.”

In late April, the UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights found: “We are concerned that the single justice procedure is an inadequate tool to provide the necessary fair trial protections for people accused of offences that are so poorly understood and lacking in clarity and where so many mistakes have been made by enforcement authorities.

“There are real concerns about the fairness of these hearings for an area of law whose enforcement has been riddled with errors, and where there often needs to be careful consideration of whether the accused had a ‘reasonable excuse’ in order for an offence to have been committed.”

It heard that 88 per cent of defendants in SJP cases in September had not submitted a plea.

The committee also heard: “A defendant who was unaware of the proceedings can re-open them by swearing a declaration to that effect and has the option of appealing to the crown court.”

The charity Transform Justice has said: “Someone prosecuted under the SJP is unlikely to know they will be prosecuted this way, let alone have any choice as to the method of prosecution.

“The police/public transport inspectors/other agents do not consult the accused as to the method.

“Those prosecuted under the single justice procedure receive their charge in the post. Ordinary post is used so there is no proof of receipt.”

Beverley Higgs, chair of the Magistrates Association, told the Parliament Justice Committee in late April that concerns over transparency have not been addressed.

Lord Wolfson, Parliamentary Under-Secretary in the Ministry of Justice, told the committee: “ ‘The important thing about the single justice procedure is, the alternative – to have a full hearing before a bench of three magistrates – would be massively resource-intensive and could overwhelm the magistrates’ courts.

“It could be argued that there is more transparency. You can obtain the underlying information in the single justice procedure if you are a member of the media in a way frankly which you can’t if you’re sitting at the back of the magistrates’ court…

“If you imagine a journalist walking into the magistrates’ court and sitting at the back, there is a lot of material the journalist does not see.

“When you’re in the single justice procedure, the statement of the prosecution and the defence is available to be looked at.

“Arguably there is more transparency in the SJP procedure than the traditional procedure.”