Coronavirus / Criminal penalties

Coronavirus: Criminal penalties

This information was correct as of 1 April 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?

Yes, because these regulations create new criminal offences. So it’s now against the law to:

  • gather outdoors in a group of more than six people (unless one of the exceptions applies)
  • gather indoors with anyone from outside your household or support bubble (unless one of the exceptions applies)
  • organise a gathering of more than 30 people in a private home or public outdoor place, or at any place indoors if the gathering is a “rave” (unless one of the exceptions applies)
  • leave the UK, or travel to an embarkation point for this purpose, without a reasonable excuse
  • fail to produce a travel declaration form when asked by a relevant person at an embarkation point
  • obstruct a person who is enforcing the regulations
  • defy directions by police, such as when they tell you to go home or tell you to leave a gathering.

But crucially, it is not an offence if you have a reasonable excuse for doing any of the above.

It is also a criminal offence to:

  • ‘incite’ others to commit one of the offences above, for example by inviting people to a party
  • 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 “large gathering offences”

On 29 January 2021, the Government introduced a new, increased fine for “large gathering offences”. These are offences where you have breached the gatherings restrictions by gathering:

For these offences, the fine is £800, payable within 28 days – or only £400 if paid within 14 days. As above, if you pay this fine within 28 days, you won’t be prosecuted, but if you don’t pay it you might be prosecuted.

If you later commit a second “large gathering offence” and are given a second fixed penalty notice, the fine increases to £1,600. It will then double for the third and fourth offence, and is capped at £6,400 for the fourth offence onwards.

Penalties for organising a gathering

The fine for organising an illegal gathering is £10,000, payable within 28 days. As above, if you don’t pay the fine within 28 days, you might be prosecuted for a criminal offence and have to go to court.

Penalties for travelling offences

Under the Step 1 restrictions, it is unlawful to travel outside of the UK, or travel to an embarkation point for this purpose, without a reasonable excuse and a travel declaration form.

Breaching these rules by travelling to, or being present at, an embarkation point for the purposes of leaving the UK without a reasonable excuse is punishable by a fine of £5,000. Leaving the UK without a reasonable excuse is also punishable by a fine of £5,000.

Other travel offences are punishable by a £200 fine, including:

  • Failing to have a completed Travel Declaration Form when at an embarkation point and intending to leave the UK
  • Failing to comply with a direction to produce or complete a Travel Declaration Form, or knowingly giving false information
  • Failing to adhere to a direction from a relevant person, such as a direction to leave the embarkation point.

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.

The law firm Commons has created this tool designed to help you to understand your rights if you have been issued with a fine or a fixed penalty notice under the coronavirus regulations. The tool explains what your options are and allows you to request more detailed advice.

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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