Coronavirus and the law – part 2
The uncertainties concerning the law regulating behaviour during the Coronavirus epidemic continues. Recent events have demonstrated variations by the legislatures in different parts of the UK, reflecting the independence of the Devolved Parliaments. These uncertainties are all the more so given the willingness of Government ministers or spokesman to share with us their own views on what we should be doing, without making it clear whether they are speaking about the law which has been passed or personal opinions. Uncertainty in the law is never a good thing. When the success of the law being effective is dependent on the goodwill of the public, then a clear understanding of what the law is would be helpful. Anything short of this can cause problems.
The recent provisions heralded by the Prime Minister on the evening of Sunday 10th May have now been enacted into legislation by the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) England (Amendment)(No 2). These Regulations are effective as from the 13th May 2020. If you thought the Prime Minister was telling you what the law was on Sunday evening, this is not the case. He was telling you what the law was going to be, somewhat confusingly referring to the United Kingdom when doing so. However, as the title of the Amendment Regulations suggests, they do not apply in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. For those people who live in one country and travel to another for say work or leisure, this can be something of a challenge. If you live in England then crossing the Severn Bridge into Wales can impose a different set of responsibilities. Get it wrong and you could be committing a criminal offence.
So what are the differences in The Law that apply in England. The Regulations enacted on the 26th March 2020 indicate that a person can leave their home if they have a “reasonable excuse” to do so. An earlier article by me listed a number of possible reasonable excuses which have been identified by the Regulations. This list is not exhaustive and an excuse can be reasonable even though it is not on the list. However, the list of identified reasonable excuses has now become longer. Included are the following identified reasonable excuses:-
- Collecting goods from a business that is permitted to remain open.
- Visiting recycling centres, garden centres and outdoor sports courts. So golf and tennis are back, or can be if this is your preference.
- Visiting Estate Agents and someone else’s property that you may be interested in purchasing.
- Visiting open spaces not just on your own but with one member of another household.
- Taking exercise with one member of another household.
The following which may be of interest to people are still not on the list:-
- Going on holiday, including visiting your own holiday home.
- Visiting family and friends (unless the previous exceptions apply – emergency, medical purposes or to escape risk of harm).
- Travelling to outdoor spaces in Wales and Scotland for exercise. Jogging in England is permissible but if you cross a border on your run then you could find yourself in trouble.
Following these amendments there are now significant differences between the law as applied in England and Wales.
In England it is likely to be reasonable for you to be outside of your home and:-
- Exercise as much as you like. This can include walking, running, cycling etc. and also tending an allotment.
- Relax outdoors in parks and other public spaces including sunbathing and picnicking.
- Drive as far as you like for exercise or leisure.
- Spending time outdoors with one other person who is not a member of your household.
If you live in Wales you cannot do any of the above. You are limited to exercising once a day, albeit that it can include tending your allotment. You can drive for exercise but only a short distance.
If you find yourself in breach of the law the penalty can also vary depending on whether you are in England or another region of the United Kingdom. In England for the first offence the fine is £100 reduced to £50 if paid within 14 days. In Wales the fine is £60.
In England if you find yourself committing a second offence then you could be fined £200 and thereafter this can double for each further offence up to a maximum of £3,200. Repeat offenders in Wales have the comfort of only having to pay a fine of £100 for a second offence in Wales and also £120 for each further offence.
These relate to on the spot fines issued by police officers who are tasked with enforcing the Regulations.
What has been put forward as good practice, the much talked about two metre rule, is not part of the law. It is not an offence to be less than two metres from another person although it can be an offence to be in the company of another person who is not a member of your household. Equally all the advice which has been given about wearing face masks fails to mention that this is also not the law. It is entirely voluntary as to whether anybody wishes to accept this advice, it is not a legal requirement.
So what are the police to do about these changes? The enthusiasm to prosecute seems to have waned and the official guidance to officers in England, the National Police Chief’s Council, is for officers “to exercise their discretion”. Everything seems easier with a slogan and the NPCC have opted for “Engage, Explain, Encourage and, as a last resort, Enforce”).
The NPCC are also encouraging officers to “use their discretion”. This may be good advice but it can mean that enforcement of the law varies depending on the understanding and judgement of the police officer you meet at the time. Perhaps this is not the best way for legislation to be enforced?
One hopes that with some further thought and reflection things may improve. By all means listen to the guidance, be advised by politicians but remember your duty is to obey the law. It may be better if politicians confine themselves to explaining the law without their added gloss or make it clear when they are putting forward their personal opinions rather than a definitive statement on your legal responsibilities.
Edwards Duthie Shamash Solicitors based in London. We are able to provide expert legal advice and assistance over a number of areas of law the full details of which can be obtained on this website.