After 10k fine for protesting, is the right of association dead?

A summary penalty of £10,000 was handed out to Piers Corbyn, for his part in organising a protest against Coronavirus measures in London.

The fine was issued under a Statutory Instrument – SI no. 907, or ‘The Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Restrictions on Holding of Gatherings and Amendment) (England) Regulations 2020’ – which by suspicious coincidence was introduced two days before the rally was due to be held.

The instrument was introduced by the health secretary, without parliamentary vote or discussion, and makes it a criminal offence for a person to organise a gathering of more than 30 people in public places or in a private dwelling.

A wide range of gatherings would fall foul of the measure, including (in the opinion of human rights barrister Adam Wagner) a large child’s birthday party.

There are certain exemptions – if a gathering is necessary for work, sports training, or childcare; or if the organisers are a business, charitable organisation, political party or body, and have undertaken a high level risk assessment and implemented measures to limit the spread of coronavirus.

The interpretation of these exemptions is left to the summary decisions of police officers, who are empowered to issue ‘a fixed penalty notice of £10,000 to any person aged 18 or over whom they reasonably believe has committed an offence of contravening these restrictions.’

Police officers decided, for reasons best known to themselves, that Corbyn’s demonstration contravened the regulation, while other demonstrations have been allowed.

In effect, the police are now in the position where they can issue a hefty fine to any gathering they want. While this is the case, we in effect have no right of free speech or free association.

Other Coronavirus powers also attack our freedom of association. The Coronavirus Act (also passed without parliamentary vote) gives power to the health secretary to restrict events or gatherings:

The Secretary of State may, for the purpose of – (a)preventing, protecting against, delaying or otherwise controlling the incidence or transmission of coronavirus, or (b)facilitating the most appropriate deployment of medical or emergency personnel and resources – issue a direction prohibiting, or imposing requirements or restrictions in relation to, the holding of an event or gathering in England.

In addition, Statutory Instrument Number 750 (introduced in July) gives powers to local authorities to impose conditions upon events:

a local authority may give a direction imposing prohibitions, requirements or restrictions in relation to the holding of an event in its area;

Therefore, although the main phase of lockdown is over, a patchwork of statutory instruments have replaced it that give the secretary of state, police, and local authorities carte blanche to shut down any public demonstration they wish.

This is a key moment. While lockdown is being lifted, dramatic new extensions of control over public assembly are occurring, which could persist for months or even years to come.

Corbyn has said that he’ll challenge the fine. We need to challenge the diktat powers that allowed such an outrageous fine to be issued in the first place.