Student party £10,000 coronavirus fines - too harsh or necessary deterrent?
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
For the three university students fined £10,000 each after throwing a party in Norwich, the harsh financial lesson of falling foul of coronavirus guidelines may be the most memorable of their time studying.
Two women, both 20, and a third woman, 19, who all lived at the address where the party, attended by 100 revellers, took place, were all issued fines that would be sizable for anyone - let alone students now facing large extra debts.
Police, who were called to break up the party on Bowthorpe Road held by University of East Anglia students, issued the fixed penalty notices for breaking the ban on being involved in holding a gathering of more than 30 people during the coronavirus pandemic.
Last month a woman was also handed a £10,000 fine after being arrested as part of a demonstration against coronavirus rules attended by more than 100 people in Norwich city centre.
The fines were introduced in the government’s most recent set of Covid-19 laws on gatherings, which came into force on August 29.
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The guidance says they apply to anyone organising an illegal rave, unlicensed music event or any other type of gathering of more than 30 people.
This places house party organisers in the same bracket as those who have held illegal music events such as the one that drew 500 people to Thetford Forest on the August bank holiday weekend.
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But are they too harsh, or a necessary deterrent?
Simon Nicholls, director of Belmores Solicitors in Norwich, who is an authority on criminal cases, said such large fines could be argued to be disproportionate and could well be reduced if people chose to appeal.
He said: “My educated guess is that if you choose not to accept the penalty and it goes to court and I cannot believe magistrates will impose £10,000 fines on students.
“They normally determine the level of a fine based on a defendant’s income, quite rightly. That’s how it should be.”
He said it was possible the fine would be significantly reduced by magistrates who would look at the income and earning of the person before them.
“My advice is to seek legal advice whether you wish to contest the notice itself or the amount of the fine, unless you happen to be phenomenally rich. Even for a small company paying out £10,000 is a significant sum.”
Police officers are now in a position where they must hand down significant punishment, without the trial or open nature of a courtroom.
But Andy Symonds, chairman of Norfolk Police Federation, said the issuing of £10,000 fines was not something that would be taken lightly.
He said: “Obviously with the three individuals that received £10,000 fines recently, we sometimes find ourselves seen in the role of the bad guys when we are enforcing this legislation that has been laid down by politicians.
“We had a lot of concerns all the way through this around are we able to police it properly, particularly in the rule of six inside the home, it is a real difficult balance that we have got.
“But parties and large gatherings, like unlicensed music events, is the area where we need to concentrate our resources.”
A Norfolk Constabulary spokesperson said the rules are set out by the government, and its policing approach had been to “engage, explain and encourage” people to follow the rules.
“Where these efforts are ignored and we see flagrant breaches, officers will use their discretion and powers available to them to resolve breaches,” they said.
Mr Symonds said he believed the issuing of £10,000 fines in Norfolk had been proportionate.
“We have parties of over 100 people gathering, that is in my view completely unacceptable and isn’t at the level where we try to encourage and explain,” he said.
Mr Nicholls said he believed the size of the fine was in part aimed at being a deterrent to discourage others.
He said: “It’s so it gains publicity, people talk about it and it makes people think ‘blimey, I better not have a party because I cannot afford 10 grand’. I suspect that is probably the main logic behind it, as a deterrent.”
How police fines for Covid-19 breaches vary
Figures show there are also wide variations on how likely police forces are to use coronavirus fixed penalty notices.
Analysis using fines data published by the National Police Chiefs’ Council and population figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed Norfolk issued 410 fines from March 27 to September 21. By contrast Suffolk had issued 262 fines, while Cambridgeshire saw 133.
The figures outline a disparity over the legislation with Dyfed Powys, the force with the highest number of penalties, 87 times more likely to dish out fines than the lowest, Warwickshire.
Human rights lawyer Kirsty Brimelow said: “Your treatment by the police should not be dependent upon your postcode.
“It is likely that the arbitrary results reflect the leadership given to the particular police force.”
What can you actually be fined for?
Police can issue fixed penalty fines to those who refuse to comply with the coronavirus rules.
Fines for failing to wear a face covering if you do not have an exemption, or for breaking the rule of six start at £200 (lowered to £100 if paid within 14 days) and can increase to as much as £6,400 for repeated breaches.
People who refuse an order to self-isolate could be fined £1,000 rising to £10,000 for repeat offenders and for “the most egregious breaches” including those who stop others from self-isolating, like an employer who asks a staff member to come into work.
For those holding, or are involved in holding, an illegal gathering of over 30 people, the police can issue fines of £10,000. Those who attend gatherings and those who do not wear face coverings where it is mandatory can be given a £100 fine, doubling on each offence up to £3,200.