Questions are mounting as to why some politicians and officials who attended Downing Street events have been fined for breaking Covid laws while others have not.
Youngsters are reportedly upset that they have been given Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs) while the Prime Minister has not been penalized at the same gatherings.
But the complex nature of coronavirus legislation, which has changed multiple times during the period the parties took place, means Boris Johnson may have had a “reasonable excuse” in law that prevented him from being fined .
The Metropolitan Police have not named anyone found to have broken Covid laws and have refused to give a breakdown of how many people have been fined for which gatherings.
A total of 126 fines were imposed on 83 people for events that took place on eight dates between May 2020 and April 2021.
How did the law work?
A number of laws, known as health protection ordinances, have been amended during the pandemic to enforce various restrictions, including national lockdowns.
They set the legal boundaries for gatherings, but also provided defenses and exceptions.
At all times, a defense of the “reasonable apology” was built into the law, and the list of examples given in the legislation was not exhaustive.
For example, the wording of the laws in effect during a series of Christmas celebrations and Brexits in December 2020 and January 2021 read: “A person commits a criminal offense when, without good reason… [they] breach a restriction.”
This means that police could use their discretion to decide whether someone had broken the law or had a legal defense for doing what at first glance appeared to be a Covid breach.
What laws were broken during Partygate?
As different gatherings were held at different stages of the restrictions, the Metropolitan Police fined six different offences.
For the ‘bring your own booze’ garden party on May 20, 2020, which the Prime Minister said he attended for 25 minutes because he thought it was a ‘work event’, attendees were fined because they “were outside of their place of residence without a reasonable excuse”. .
As Downing Street is the Prime Minister’s official residence, he did not fall within the scope of the offense but staff and all other non-residents did.
Events held on the remaining seven dates, which faced fines, breached subsequent Covid laws restricting gatherings of various kinds.
What were the possible defense mechanisms?
The flexible defense of “reasonable apologies” remained in place, meaning police had to consider individual reasons for apparent violations on a case-by-case basis.
There was also a broad exemption for meetings that were “reasonably necessary for work purposes” or “essential for work purposes.”
This is probably the main defense of many who attended Downing Street meetings, many of which were held after the end of the working day and at a time when political staff were routinely working in the office.
Why would some people be fined for the same event but not others?
There are several possible explanations. One is that some people had a “reasonable excuse” for attending while others didn’t, and another is that the event itself was changed from legal to illegal by the police at a certain point.
It’s also possible that any Downing Street resident could claim a “reasonable excuse” for being in parts of the building where illegal gatherings were taking place.
Adam Wagner, a human rights lawyer specializing in Covid laws, told the BBC: “The only explanation I can think of is that a gathering can go from one thing to another.
“Maybe it starts off like, ‘Let’s toast our colleague and say a few words, and then people will stay for a drink into the evening.’
“So they may have decided that the gathering would start out as one type of gathering and then morph into another.”
Several of the events believed to have resulted in fines were the leaving of documents for Downing Street staff starting in the office.
What did the police say about their reasoning?
Scotland Yard has declined to comment on individual cases, but confirmed it had given each person eligible for a fine an opportunity to use written questionnaires to provide a reasonable excuse for their attendance at meetings.
A statement said officers were investigating both the circumstances of the event and the “acts of the person concerned.”
“Each strand of inquiry examined the date, the circumstances behind each event, and the individual’s actions compared to the legislation at the time to determine whether their behavior met the criminal threshold for an FPN referral,” a statement said.
“We took great care to ensure that for each transfer we had the evidence necessary to pursue the FPN in court if they were not paid.”
Police first gathered evidence about an incident and then conducted separate assessments for each person present.
In order to fine them, police said they needed “reasonable belief that the person has committed an offense under the regulations”.
They examined whether the gathering itself met an exception under the Covid laws, and if not, “whether the person had a reasonable excuse for attending that gathering”.
Cressida Dick confirms that “Met is now investigating Downing Street Partygate allegations”.
Did the Metropolitan Police treat Downing Street gatherings differently than ordinary members of the public?
Police across the country have had a policy against post-Covid investigations throughout the pandemic, meaning the vast majority of on-the-spot fines have been handed out by police officers.
This meant that people were often hit with sentences without formal gathering of evidence or questioning, and had to risk prosecution to contest them.
Because the Partygate investigation was a rare retrospective investigation, the process was much more formal, potentially resulting in people having a better chance of defending themselves before being fined.
Kirsty Brimelow QC, a human rights lawyer representing people fighting Covid fines, said The Independent: “What I’ve seen in cases across the country is that the ‘reasonable excuse’ part was never applied – the police would only look for exceptions close to the gathering itself.
“In the cases I’ve looked at, it’s been ‘well, if you think you have a defense, you can take your chances in county court.'”
Scotland Yard said its detectives had processed 204 questionnaires specially prepared for the investigation, as well as 345 documents and 510 photos and CCTV images.
It said officials “took great care to ensure that for each transfer we had the evidence necessary to pursue the FPN in court if they were not paid.”
Ms Brimelow said police would normally only consider evidence at the point where someone contests a fine and they decide whether to go ahead with it in court.
“That’s a higher bar than I’ve seen across the country,” she added.
“FPNs would be issued when there is a reasonable belief of a breach, rather than having all the evidence in ship form when it goes to court.
“The Met applied the regulations, but they applied them in a way that puts a higher bar on police before issuing an FPN.”
https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/partygate-fines-boris-johnson-downing-street-b2083054.html Partygate: Why have some people escaped fines for Downing Street lockdown parties?