On Wednesday 25th March 2020 the Coronavirus Bill completed all its parliamentary stages, and Royal Assent was signified, bringing in to force an unprecedented piece of emergency legislation. The purpose of the Coronavirus Act is to enable the Government to respond to an emergency situation and manage the effects of a covid-19 pandemic. A severe pandemic could infect up to 80% of the population leading to a reduced workforce, increased pressure on health services and death management processes.
The Act contains temporary measures designed to either amend existing legislative provisions or introduce new statutory powers which are designed to mitigate these impacts.The Act aims to support Government in the following:
- Increasing the available health and social care workforce
- Easing the burden on frontline staff
- Containing and slowing the virus
- Managing the deceased with respect and dignity
- Supporting people
What are the changes?
The efficiency and timeliness of court and tribunal hearings will suffer during a covid-19 outbreak. Restrictions on travel will make it difficult for parties to attend court and without action a significant number of hearings and trials are likely to be adjourned. In criminal proceedings, the courts have a duty to deal with cases effectively and expeditiously and that includes making use of technology such as live video links, telephone or email where this is lawful and appropriate. Video link technology is increasingly being used across the court estate enabling greater participation in proceedings from remote locations. The courts currently have various statutory and inherent powers which enable them to make use of technology.
The Act amends existing legislation so as to enable the use of technology either in video/audio-enabled hearings in which one or more participants appear before the court using a live video or audio link, or by a wholly video/audio hearing where there is no physical courtroom and all participants take part in the hearing using telephone or video conferencing facilities.
Health Protection Regulations
The Act permits ministers to create new criminal offences by regulations issued under existing public health legislation. Such offences are to be triable summarily only and may not be punished with imprisonment.
The Act provides for various enforcement orders to ensure public health and safety are maintained; violation of these orders, including obstruction etc. will be a criminal offence. Many of the emergency powers under the Act can result in criminal sanction if lawful directions are not obeyed.
Schedule 20 of the Act provides for screening and quarantining of infected persons (or persons suspected to be infected). In enforcing schedule 20 powers (and similar provisions apply to other powers), a constable may:-
– use reasonable force;
– enter any place; and
– give reasonable instructions to the person (though he must inform the person that informing him of the reason for the instruction that it is an offence to fail to comply).
Events, gatherings and premises
Schedule 21 covers events, gatherings and premises. The provisions give the Secretary of State the power to prohibit or restrict events and gatherings, and to close premises, if the public health situation deems it necessary. This streamlines existing legislation in England and Wales, to ensure that powers to prevent events or gatherings can be deployed as quickly as possible in the event this is justified by the evidence. This can be deployed if, having had regard to the relevant advice, such a prohibition or restriction would:
- prevent, protect against or control the incidence or transmission of coronavirus, or
- facilitate the most appropriate deployment of medical or emergency personnel and resources
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