English Law, Legal System, Scots Law, UK Constitution

Coronavirus and the law: divergence between Scotland and England

I have written before on the problems that have arisen in policing the coronavirus “lockdown” from the conflation of law with government guidance. Those issues became relevant again at the weekend when the Prime Minister announced some changes to the lockdown guidance as it applies to England. There have been disagreements about the guidance and which guidance people should follow: the UK Government’s guidance or the guidance from the devolved administrations. In a purely Scottish context, following the new guidance from the UK Government would not be advisable as following some aspects of it may lead to you committing a criminal offence in Scotland.

As the policy positions of the devolved administrations and the UK Government have diverged, the Scottish Government has been encouraging people from England not to travel to Scotland.

The new regulations that apply in England (from today) were made yesterday. I have spent some time considering how the new English regulations interact with the Scottish regulations. Just how can authorities in Scotland deal with people who have travelled from England to Scotland? I foresee some very real problems here.

The starting point is Regulation 5 of the Scottish regulations. Regulation 5 sets out the restriction on movement. In terms of Regultion 5, a person is not permitted to leave the place where they are living, except to the extent that a defence is available; that defence is contained in Regulation 8(4). Reading the two together, it essentially means that a person may not leave the place where they are living without having a reasonable excuse. It is a criminal offence to fail to comply with Regulation 5.

The offence in Scotland relates to the act of leaving the place where you live. If you had a reasonable excuse when you left where you live then you have not committed an offence. On a literal reading of the regulations if you leave for a reasonable excuse and then stay out once you have completed whatever it was then no offence has been committed. Equally, if a person leaves where the live for a reasonable excuse together with a number of reasons that are not themselves be a reasonable excuse, no offence is committed.

The English regulations mirrored this position until 11am on 22nd April 2020, when their equivalent of Regulation 5 was amended to include the words “or be outside of”. Therefore, in England it became the position that if you stayed away from the place that you were living after your reasonable excuse for leaving had come to an end, you committed a criminal offence.

This issue is important when dealing with people who have traveled to Scotland from England. The Scottish regulations on movement of persons are entirely directed towards the act of leaving the place where a person lives. If a person left home with a reasonable excuse, they can theoretically stay outside for as long as they wish. If a person left home to buy food and then decided on their way home to sunbathe, then it appears that the act of staying out to sunbathe would not be a criminal offence.

It should be noted at this stage that things may not be as straightforward as that. It is likely that the courts will apply an objective test in respect of the reasonable excuse. A prosecutor may argue, and a court may accept, that there is a dominant purpose test (or similar) to be applied. If the trip to the shop was merely a ploy to facilitate the act of engaging in sunbathing, a court may well decide that no reasonable excuse existed at the point the person left home; and consequently, an offence was comitted.

If the Scottish regulations are entirely directed at having a reasonable excuse at the point a person leaves home; it is hard to see how the authorities in Scotland can adequately deal with people who have come from England to Scotland to do something that, had the place they live been in Scotland, would have constituted a criminal offence in Scotland. The offence is committed at the point the person leaves the place that they are living. In such a case, the act in question occurred in England and outside of the jurisdiction of the Scottish courts. I struggle to see how the Scottish courts could apply the law of Scotland to conduct which happened entirely in England.

Literal interpretations of legislation, whether primary or secondary legislation, is not the only way in which legislation may be interpreted. The courts could also seek to read into the regulations that Regulation 5 also covers being away from the place that a person is living by applying a purposive approach to the interpretation of the regulations. If the purpose of the regulations is to keep people at home as much as possible to help reduce and slow down the spread of the virus, then it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for the courts to hold that staying away from home once the reasonable excuse has ended is also prohibited.

I don’t want to get into all the intricacies of statutory interpretation; as interesting as that may be, it would be far too long. Bennion on Statutory Interpretation (a book frequently consulted and cited when it comes to statutory interpretation issues) is in excess of 1,500 pages in length. However, although it is possible for the courts to read things into legislation; they can’t just go about reading words into legislation because they think there is a gap in the legislation that ought not to be there. It is not the job of the courts to legislate, only to interpret and apply the legislation. If the meaning of the provision is clear then that’s generally the end of the matter, even if the court does not think that’s what was intended by the provision. There is a distinction between inferring omissions and correcting a faultiness of expression where the literal reading produced an unintelligible result.

When it comes to absurdity, it is not so much concerned with whether the result itself is absurd, but rather it is concerned with whether applying the grammatical and ordinary sense of the words would lead to some absurdity, or some inconsistency with the rest of the instrument or would be repugnant to it. It’s this rule of statutory interpretation that, in my view, allows the inference that a person leaving the place that they live in order to visit a business that’s not required to be closed is a reasonable excuse; even if it doesn’t neatly fall within the non-exhaustive list. The contrary position would be absurd and inconsistent with reference to the rest of the statutory instrument.

If it is the position that being away from the place that a person lives does fall within the ambit of Regulation 5, then there is no difficulty in dealing with people who have traveled from England to Scotland and who are engaged in conduct which would, had they lived in Scotland rather than England, amounted to an offence. They are away from where they live and, in terms of the law of Scotland, they are so without a reasonable excuse. It would be irrelevant that had they been found in England in the same circumstances, they wouldn’t be committing an offence. Their presence in Scotland is all that would matter

However, if Regulation 5 does not include a person being away from the place that they live in addition to leaving that place, then there is a real problem for the Scottish authorities. The view which I have reached is that it is unlikely that Regulation 5 could be read so as to include being away from home as well as leaving home. That is a problem for the police in Scotland (although, a high degree of compliance with the Scottish Government’s “stay at home” message has undoubtedly helped) when dealing with people who do live in Scotland as well as when dealing with people who have come into Scotland from England. A change in Regulation 5 is probably advisable, even if neither of these problems are of a scale which would necessitate a change.

It goes without saying (or at least it should) that the above does not constitute formal legal advice; it’s merely an explanation as to how I formed the view that I have. No lawyer is correct all of the time and so I may, of course, be wrong.

Note: Post updated at 15:36 on 14th May 2020 to correct language that was unintelligible. The substance of the post has not changed.

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