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Can I end up with a criminal record for breaking ‘The Rule of Six’?

‘The Rule of Six,’ What is it?

New coronavirus laws prohibit social gatherings of more than six people under updated Health Protection Regulations 2020 which came into effect on Monday 14 September 2020. The full amendments titled The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No.2)(England)(Amendment)(No.4) Regulations 2020. It is now illegal to meet in groups of more than six in England indoors or outdoors, apart from where exemptions apply, see below. In England persons of all ages are included; children are not exempt when calculating those at a gathering.

Exceptions allowed in England include:

  • If your household or support bubble is larger than six
  • Education and training
  • Workplaces
  • Protests and political events (if coronavirus rules are followed)
  • Jury duty or other legal commitments
  • Children’s play groups and youth clubs
  • Support groups, such as for addiction or abuse

From Monday 28 September 2020 in England, only 15 people will be able to attend weddings or civil partnerships, in groups of six. Funerals will be able to take place with up to 30 people attending. Also from that date, you will only be able to play organised indoor sports in groups of fewer than six. It will still be possible for larger groups to take part in organised sports outdoors, but not on an informal basis.

These rules are now commonly known as ‘The Rule of Six,’ if breached you could end up with a criminal record. The law applies for all parts of England except places which have a local lockdown where rules may be tighter.

Scotland and Wales have their own versions of ‘The Rule of Six’.

I will look at the enforcement and risk of obtaining a criminal record for breaches in England only.

Enforcement of ‘The Rule of Six’ in England

Police have publicised that in the first instance they will try to disperse groups.

The law gives Police and Police Community Support Officers (PCSO’s) the power to:

  1. “Direct the gathering to disperse”, or
  2. “Remove a person from the gathering”.
  3. Issue Prohibition Notices where there are contraventions and it is necessary and proportionate.

Police can “use reasonable force, if necessary” to do this.

Other people who can tell you to disperse are those specifically designated by the Secretary of State.

Fixed Penalty Notices in England

The law allows police to issue a £100 on the spot fine or Fixed Penalty Notice (FPN fine) to anyone over 18 who they “reasonably believe” has broken the law or arrest them in exceptional cases.

If you pay this FPN fine within 14 days, the fine is halved to £50.

For persistent or repeat offenders, the fine can double each time up to £3,200 on your sixth offence.

Where FPN are given for contraventions of other lockdown regulations for instance organising mass gathering the fixed penalty notice can be issued for as much as £10,000.

If you pay FPN fines in the time period allowed, you will not receive a criminal record and will be exempt from prosecution for this alleged offence. That is because it is designed to give you one opportunity to discharge any liability to conviction for the offence.

If you fail to pay the £100 fine within 28 days, or refuse to accept it, the FPN offer is effectively withdrawn by police. You can then be arrested and charged or summoned to the magistrates’ court where you would face prosecution.

How can I end up with a criminal conviction/ criminal record in England?

As set out in updated Health Protection Regulations 2020, ‘A person who without reasonable excuse contravenes a requirement in regulation 4, 5, 6(10), (11) or 7 commits a summary offence punishable with unlimited fines’.

If you are charged or summoned to court for an offence effectively breaching, ‘The rule of six’ or other Lockdown regulations this will mean going to a magistrates’ court, and pleading guilty or not guilty.

If you plead not guilty, you will be tried by a panel of Magistrates or District Judge who decide whether you are guilty.

In court, if you plead guilty or are found guilty of the offence you will receive a criminal record.

If you are found guilty in the magistrates’ court, you will likely receive a fine that could be much higher than £100 possibly offered to you previously in the FPN, along with a guaranteed criminal record. You may also be asked to pay a contribution towards prosecution costs and a victim surcharge. If you are unable to get legal aid in your case you may also have to fund a defence lawyer yourself should you want to be represented in proceedings. The court are also likely to attach a collection order to these court fines meaning court bailiffs can enforce payment if not made. None payment of court fines is also a separate offence which you can be punished by way of imprisonment.

Of course the Court may find in your favour and that you have not broken the law but you will only know this once you have been through the trial process. If you are found not guilty you will not receive a criminal record and will not be asked to make any payments to the Court.

Can you appeal your fine out of court in England?

The simple answer is No. If you do not agree with the FPN fine the same appeals systems which are in place, for say a parking ticket, do not exist here. You have two simple options either:

  1. Pay the fine on time and in full or
  2. Face being prosecuted and taken to Court.

Do I have a defence?

Each case is unique and a defence of ‘reasonable excuse’ should be fully explored with expert legal advice. The Lockdown Rules set out in Regulations can be very confusing, even for criminal lawyers to interpret given the way they are worded. But it is not surprising these Regulations are less than straightforward to interpret given the speed they were drafted by the legislator given the spread of Coronavirus.

Case law is also limited to date given that these Regulations are so new and untested in Courts. Getting professional advice on the law from experts such as those at Hodge Joins Allen is very likely to be beneficial.

What should I do if I receive a Fixed Penalty Notice, Fine, Arrested, Charged or Summoned to Court for breaching the Rule of Six or Lockdown Rules?

Get legal advice, these offences should be taken seriously. They could result in financial penalties of up to £10,000 depending on the regulation breached or criminal convictions and imprisonment if Court fines after conviction are not paid as directed. It is therefore very important to seek legal advice as representations to the prosecution on your behalf could halt charges.

Our experienced Criminal Defence solicitors are widely recognised as one of the leading criminal defence practices in the UK. If you need legal advice you can call us 24 hours a day on 0330 822 3451 or get in touch online.