Civil Liberties, Constitutional Law, Criminal Justice, Criminal Law, English Law, Human Rights, Legal System, Public Law

Coronavirus, guidance and the law

The United Kingdom, like the rest of the world, is in the midst of a public health emergency. COVID-19 is spreading through the world with devastating consequences for individuals, families and communities. Ministers in each of the four governments within the United Kingdom have made Regulations, either under the Public Health Act 1984 (England and Wales) or the Coronavirus Act 2020 (Northern Ireland and Scotland). Those Regulations can be found here:

England
Northern Ireland
Scotland (and the Scottish Amendment Regulations)
Wales (and the Welsh Amendment Regulations)

There is some difference in the form that the Regulations take, but there is very little difference in the substance of the Regulations applicable in each of the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom. I don’t intend on dealing in this post with the differences in substance that do exist between the Regulations in each of the four nations. Instead, my focus in this blog will be on something different. It will be on the difference between the guidance issued by the governments and the Regulations made by Ministers.

On social media there has been a large amount of concern expressed at the way in which the public health emergency is being policed. We’ve already seen examples of one police force arrest, detain and charge someone with an offence that didn’t even exist (the judge presiding over the case didn’t come out of it smelling of roses either) and of overly-restrictive interpretations of the law (such as only being permitted to buy “necessary” items when in the shops or only being permitted to make necessary journeys) and other examples of the law seemingly being made up on the spot (such as the South Yorkshire Police officer filmed telling people, contrary to the express words of the English Regulations, that they couldn’t be in their front garden).

I will say this before I go any further: of course there will be plenty of police officers applying the law diligently and fairly, having sensible and proportionate conversations with people in their communities; however, their good work is being over-shadowed by the poorly worded and inaccurate communications coming out from official police sources (such as social media accounts and websites). It won’t be the good work that determines the way in which the police will be viewed in light of this pandemic. What people will ultimately look at is the poor decisions, the unlawful actions and how wide-spread they were. Every poor decision, every unlawful action (no matter how well intentioned) will reflect badly on the police.

The Chief Constable of Northamptonshire Police was in the press this week declaring that the public had now had enough time to get used to the Regulations. Well, the same is true for the police. If police officers are unfamiliar with the Regulations then they should spend more time reading them and less time listening to press conferences by politicians.

There has been a considerable conflation between the guidance and the law. That doesn’t just extend to the Police, the Government has been equally unhelpful in this regard. I am not objecting to the police publicising the guidance nor am I objecting to the Police having conversations with people in their communities about the guidance. What I am objecting to is the conflation of the two. They are not interchangeable. The guidance contradicts the law in a number of areas; the guidance is far more restrictive than the law actually is. This has been known for some weeks and the law has gone uncorrected, we can therefore deduce that these difference were probably not a mistake and that the “gaps” in the law are not mistakes; instead, we must work on the basis that they were as a result of deliberate policy decisions taken by Ministers. It is not for the police, nor is it for the courts to attempt to fill perceived gaps in statutory provisions.

An example that keeps being used when the difference between guidance and law is brought up is the Highway Code. That, however, is a fundamentally misconceived comparison. The Highway Code was originally made under section 45 of The Road Traffic Act 1930. Section 38(1) of the Road Traffic Act 1988 expressly retains the Highway Code. The remainder of Section 38 makes provision for the updating of the Highway Code, including for scrutiny by Parliament of proposed amendments which are not made in consequences of the enactment, amendment or repeal of statutory provisions. Finally, the legislation expressly permits the Highway Code to be used to help prove or disprove liability in both civil and criminal cases. It is therefore a statutory code and is not an appropriate comparator for non-statutory guidance.

The guidance issued by Ministers in relation to coronavirus is non-statutory, indeed Ministers could have sought powers from Parliament when passing what is now the Coronavirus Act 2020 in order to issue statutory guidance or codes and made provision for how they should be treated. However, they did not. Where the guidance contradicts the express words of the Regulations, it will be entirely ignored by the Courts and it should also be entirely ignored by the Police when they are working out what powers the Regulations do and do not give to them.

While there are no cases from the appellate courts interpreting these Regulations we do not start from scratch when it comes to interpretation. There are clear rules, built up over a very long time, as to how statutory provisions are to be interpreted. These rules are well known to lawyers; Parliament will be deemed by the courts to have known them when passing the primary legislation and Ministers will also be deemed to have known them when making the Regulations. The phraseology used in the Regulations is clearly intended to be flexible rather then prescriptive. The lists of “reasonable excuses” expressly provided for in the Regulations is non-exhaustive and the list that appears in the Regulations is very different to the list that is repeated every day at ministerial press conferences. There is, for example, no prohibition in the Regulations on buying non-essential items (including luxury food items). Neither is there a prohibition on making “unnecessary journeys”.

Also, the UK Government has recently updated parts of its guidance in response to pre-action correspondence challenging the lawfulness of aspects of its guidance. That is a clear reminder that although the Government can issue non-statutory guidance it is constrained by the law as to what that guidance contains. It is therefore necessary to not simply look and see what the guidance says, but also to consider whether it is lawful (e.g. does it discriminate on the grounds of a protected characteristic). The courts will also, rightly, reject any part of the guidance which, while not contradictory to the coronavirus regulations, is otherwise unlawful.

The Human Rights Act 1998 still applies, it has not been amended or modified by any of the Coronavirus legislation. The Act does permit flexibility; however, legislation will always be sought to be read compatibly with it. Indeed, Secondary legislation (such as the Regulations linked to at the start of this post) is even more vulnerable to it than Acts made by the UK Parliament. It is almost certain that the appellate courts will seek to interpret the coronavirus laws as narrowly as possible given their considerable infringement upon our rights and liberties. It is unlikely to interpret it in a way that is wider than what is absolutely essential for the purpose that it was made for. Proportionality in the interpretation will be key; the courts will certainly not accept the more extreme interpretations given to them by some police officers.

I’m not just going to criticise the police in this post. I hope to provide some possible solutions to these problems; my ego doesn’t stretch to me assuming that anyone will pay the blindest bit of notice to them, but nevertheless it is important that I seek to balance the criticism with some suggestions of what the police could start doing.

The Police could help by starting to clearly differentiate between the guidance and the law in their public communications. Where they taking action in respect of criminal offences then they should leave out all mentions of the guidance and instead only refer to the law. Where they are encouraging compliance with the guidance they should leave out all references to enforcement.

Those mostly responsible within the police for public communications are not police officers, but the senior leadership of the police forces should get involved. They should be taking steps to establish protocols to ensure that confusing and inaccurate things are not published. Perhaps a senior officer with a good understanding of the Regulations could be appointed to work with the corporate communications team within the force? They could be a point of contact for the PR team so that they can run things past them before they’re published, someone who can field enquiries by the press and be the face of the local response to the policing of these Regulations. That would help to ensure clear, accurate and consistent messaging. If there isn’t a senior officer with a good understanding of the Regulations the Chief Constable could perhaps task one to spend time getting up to speed with what the Regulations say, how they differ from the guidance and where the guidance contradicts the law.

The conflation between the guidance and the law will not be helping the police logistically either. No doubt the police are being inundated with reports of conduct which, while not in compliance with the guidance, is not actually an offence. The police could probably do without unnecessary contact from the public. However, their current strategy is most likely going to be encouraging that contact by not adequately differentiating between things that they have powers to deal with and things that they are powerless to deal with. As police resources become stretched they will require to direct those resources towards people actually breaking the law (whether that be the coronavirus laws or other offences such as assaults, sexual offences, thefts etc.). So, changing their communications strategy is also in their interests from a resources perspective.

Finally, there is no contradiction at all in saying that people should seek to follow the governments’ guidance and apply common sense while at the same time the police should not be confusing the law with the guidance and should only seek to enforce the law. As an asthmatic who is entitled to the flu vaccination on the NHS each year I am in the “high risk group” (although I don’t fall into the very high risk category as my Asthma is generally well controlled). I’ve been following the government’s guidance. I’ve not left my property since Monday (when I went to buy food from the shops). I’ve been engaging in social distancing since before the laws were made. Indeed, by the time the Scottish Regulations were made (which are the ones that directly apply to me and to my life) I had already been in “lockdown” for over a week. Personally, I would quite like it if everyone just stayed at home so as to reduce the risk to me of contracting this virus. However, as a lawyer I am a firm believer in and supporter of the rule of law. It is sacrosanct; especially in emergencies. The rule of law is what makes us a democratic society rather than a totalitarian one.