One of the potential consequences for people taking part in protests against the government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, or other protests in the coming months, is receiving a fixed penalty notice (FPN) for allegedly breaching health protection regulations.
The way the police justify issuing an FPN will vary according to the coronavirus regulations in place at the time. From 1 April 2021, guidances says protests are allowed if organisers carry out a risk assessment and implement social distancing measures (although different rules were in place if you received an FPN from January 2021).
Currently, if the protest has no formal organisers, you face the risk of arrest if you attend a protest of more than six people.
In these circumstances, the police can tell people to disperse, instruct you to go home and, if you refuse, they could arrest you.
Although the usual legal advice is not to give personal details to the police, and they are not allowed to demand your details under any stop and search power, the police will ask for your personal details when issuing you with a Fixed Penalty Notice. If you do not provide your personal details, the police may decide to arrest you in order to get them.
In figures issued by the Metropolitan Police on 5 April 2021 after the nationwide weekend of action against the policing bill over Easter, most people arrested were released without further action but a small number – nine out of 109 arrests – were issued with Fixed Penalty Notices and fined. It remains unclear why these particular protesters – rather than the thousands of others who took to the streets in London – were targeted for alleged breaches of lockdown rules.
Appealing a Fixed Penalty Notice
So what happens if you receive a fixed penalty notice? If you are unhappy about the reasons why it was given to you, there is unfortunately no formal right of appeal.
If there is no local resolution process in place (a few councils have set up this kind of arrangement – check your council’s website), the only option is refuse to pay the fine within 28 days and face prosecution for a criminal offence under the regulations.
Refusing to pay allows you to take the case to a Magistrates’ Court to challenge the legality of the fine, and gives you the opportunity to defend yourself.
Notifications of fines are issued by a national police unit, the ACRO Criminal Records Office, on behalf of local police forces. Its latest guidance says you can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org with your ACRO reference number (this is on the letter of notification), clearly stating that you wish to contest your fine and request a court hearing.
It says it will “inform [the force that issued the FPN] of your contest request and forward any supporting information/evidence that you have provided”. It is possible that the police may then review your case and decide whether to withdraw the fine, but they may also proceed to take you to court.
Additionally, if you were arrested when they issued you with the Fixed Penalty Notice, and this seemed like little more than a means of obtaining your personal details you can consider making a complaint. Depending on the circumstances, there may be an option to bring a civil action against the police.
The standard fine is £200, payable within 28 days – or only £100 if paid within 14 days. If you go to court, you may have to pay more and will have a criminal record if found guilty. However, you also have an opportunity to challenge the validity of the fine and receive a not-guilty verdict.
If you decide to go down the route of refusing to pay a Fixed Penalty Notice, you may want to look at legal representation. The solicitors on our list – https://netpol.org/solicitors/criminal-solicitors-2/ – have been recommended by other campaigners and can help, as long as they have capacity (several are very busy at the moment).
Netpol, April 2021