Coronavirus / Criminal penalties

Coronavirus: Criminal penalties

This information was correct as of 19 July 2021, but is subject to possible changes.

This page sets out the law and guidance which applies in England only.

Can I be charged with a criminal offence?

The Steps 4 Regulations, which came into force on 19 July 2021, lift any restrictions on social gatherings. This means that is it no longer a criminal offence to gather indoors or outdoors with a group, regardless of the size of the group or the event.

There are still certain restrictions in place which carry penalties including:

  • not providing accurate details about the countries you have visited in the 10 days before you arrived in the UK.
  • breaking mandatory quarantine and testing rules after travelling from an Amber or Red list country. See here.
  • breaking isolation requirements when informed to do so by NHS Test and Trace.

See our other Coronavirus articles for more information on offences in particular areas. It is also a criminal offence to:

  • ‘incite’ others to commit one of the offences above, for example by encouraging someone to break isolation rules
  • threaten someone with infection by coronavirus, for example by coughing or spitting at them.

These are pre-existing offences and are not contained specifically within the coronavirus regulations.

What are the punishments?

If you’re 18 or over, and the police reasonably believe you have committed an offence under the new regulations, you will most likely be given a ‘fixed penalty notice’ (a fine). If so, you will be offered the option of paying a fine to the local council in order to avoid any further action.

Standard penalties

For most of the offences, the fine is £200, payable within 28 days – or only £100 if paid within 14 days. If you pay the fine within 28 days, you won’t be prosecuted for a criminal offence. If you don’t pay it, you might be prosecuted and have to go to court.

If you later commit a second offence under these regulations and are given a second fixed penalty notice, the fine increases to £400. It will then double every time you are given a fixed penalty notice for breaching the regulations (and this is capped at £6,400 for the sixth offence onwards.)

Penalties for travelling offences

Under the Step 4 restrictions, there are still legal requirements on arriving in England. These change depending on whether you are travelling from a country that is listed as Green, Amber or Red on the Government’s traffic light system. See here for an updated list.

Breaching these legal requirements is punishable by a fixed penalty notice. See our dedicated articles on the rules of each list for more detail.

Appealing your penalty

There is no formal right of appeal in the regulations, but councils can set up an appeals procedure if they wish to. So, if you do not think you have broken the law, look at the fixed penalty notice to see if it mentions this.

If there’s no way of appealing, and you do not pay the fine within 28 days and are prosecuted for a criminal offence under the regulations, you can seek to defend yourself at the Magistrates’ Court. But if you are convicted, you may have to pay a higher level of fine and will have a criminal record. If you are found not guilty, you won’t.

Alternatively, you could try to challenge the fixed penalty notice by a process known as ‘judicial review’, where a High Court judge would be asked to decide whether or not the police acted lawfully in issuing the fine. If the judge decided that the police did not act lawfully, then the fine would be cancelled. But if they decided that the police did act lawfully, then the fine would still stand, and you would either need to pay it or risk being prosecuted for a criminal offence.

Judicial review is a complex legal claim and you should get advice from a solicitor if you are considering this.

It’s also possible that instead of fining you, the police or Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) may charge you directly with a criminal offence. You would then have to go to court.

Is there a time limit within which the police must issue the fixed penalty notice?

There is no time limit for issuing a fixed penalty notice for breach of the coronavirus regulations, however there is a time limit for bringing criminal charges if you refuse to pay the fine

If you do not pay the fine, you may be charged with a criminal offence of breaching the coronavirus regulations. The coronavirus regulations were made under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 which says that if the police or the CPS are going to charge you with an offence, they must do it within:

  • Three years from the date the offence was committed, and
  • Six months from the date the prosecutor believes they have enough evidence to charge you.

Put simply, if the police are going to charge you with an offence under the regulations, they must do it within 3 years of the alleged breach and no more than 6 months after they believe they have enough evidence to charge you. If you failed to pay a fixed penalty notice within 28 days, the police or CPS would then have 6 months in which to charge you with a breach of the coronavirus regulations.

Can I go to prison for breaking these rules?

No. All the new offences are “non recordable”, summary offences, which do not come with prison sentences. They are only punishable by fines.

This also means that the offences are unlikely to be recorded on the Police National Computer (although it is possible that they could be.)

What should I do if I’m charged with a criminal offence?

You should seek the advice of a criminal defence solicitor if you have been:

  • arrested
  • asked to go to the police station for a voluntary interview
  • charged with a criminal offence.

Getting advice from a solicitor will not make you look guilty. The solicitor will explain your rights and help you understand the criminal process.

You can get free legal advice if you are questioned at a police station. Get help finding a solicitor.

If you need further advice about your rights, contact us.

What are my rights on this?

Find out more about your rights and how the Human Rights Act protects them

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