Fixed penalty notices (FPNs) have become a common tool of the police during the coronavirus lockdown. As of the 21st September, 18,912 FPNs had been given out in England and Wales since the start of the lockdown (26th March). That’s roughly 106 a day.
Unsurprisingly, records show that the police handed out FPNs to BAME people at up to 6.8 times the rate they handed them out to white people. And it is not only these patterns of racial discrimination which raise concerns; the police’s questionable use of coronavirus powers generally brings plenty of these fines into question. As the Legal Action Group have said, the fact that a CPS review in May found that 100% of prosecutions under the Coronavirus Act 2020 and 10% of cases under the Regulations were unlawful suggests that we should subject FPNs to close scrutiny. Not only are they based on the same uncertain law and guidelines, they are essentially handed out at the discretion of the officer on the ground, leaving far more room for mistakes. Importantly, during these cash-strapped times, people should not feel intimidated into paying a fine they do not deserve and cannot really afford, just because a police officer flashed an FPN at them.
To help understand these coercive coronavirus tools, Commons, a not-for-profit criminal law firm, has created their own tool to walk people through the FPN process. This will allow people who have, or haven’t, received an FPN to better understand their situation. You can access the tool here. To assist, we at Black Protest Legal Support have created this advice article to provide general information. Please have a look at both.
It is also important to note that the charge has to be brought within six months. See the “What happens if I don’t pay an FPN?” section for more details.
What is an FPN? Is it a conviction?
Firstly, FPNs for breaching coronavirus regulations can only be given to people aged 18 or over. If you do receive one, an FPN is effectively a fine given by the police when they believe that you have committed a crime. Importantly, this is NOT the same as a conviction and will not appear on your criminal record.
Other fines do count as convictions, such as fines handed down by a judge in the Magistrates’ or Crown Court. For those fines you will be charged with a crime by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) If you plead guilty to the charge, or the magistrates (or judge) finds you guilty of the charge following a trial, you will be convicted and given the fine as your sentence. But an FPN is more like a police officer’s easy alternative before a charge is even considered. If an officer believes that you have committed a relevant crime but, for whatever reason, does not want to go through with charging you, they can give you an FPN. You then have a period of time (normally 28 days) in which to pay the relevant fine. If you pay you won’t be charged. If you fail to pay you might be charged, and the court might decide to convict you. For the details of this process see the “What happens if I don’t pay an FPN” section below.
An important point to remember is that, because it is not a conviction, the police don’t have to prove as much to give you an FPN as they would have to prove in order to get a conviction in court. In court they have to prove ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that you committed the relevant crime. For an FPN they simply have to show that they ‘reasonably believe’ that you committed the crime. If you believe that an officer was mistaken, has made the wrong decision, or gave an FPN for personal reasons rather than in line with the law, you may want to challenge the FPN. It may well be the case that the officer’s case does not stand up to legal scrutiny. If this is the case, see our “Can I challenge or fight an FPN?” section below.
What happens if I get an FPN?
The physical form of an FPN will be a written notice similar to the image above. This has to list several pieces of information:
- Your correct details
- The details of the alleged offence
- The amount you are asked to pay
- Who this should be paid to (this should be the local authority for the area in which the offence occurred)
- When this needs to be paid by (this should be 28 days from the date of the FPN)
- Your options of how to pay
- Your right to appeal if there is one (councils can create an appeal right, but they are not obliged to. See the “Can I challenge or fight an FPN” section below)
Officers may give the FPN immediately, but they might instead ask to take your address at the time and then send an FPN in the mail at a later date.
If I’ve been given an FPN, how much do I have to pay?
The charges for coronavirus FPNs have changed several times since the Regulations came into effect. Your FPN should detail how much you are being asked to pay, so this would be the first place to check.
As a more general answer, the amount will change depending on when the charge is given, whether you have had previous coronavirus FPNs and, in the first case, how soon the payment is made. See the table below for the historic charges. These are the charges as relevant for England. The charges in Wales and Scotland are lower, and can be found online.
|Date of alleged offence||First offence (halved if paid within 14 days)||Second offence||Third offence||Fourth offence||Fifth offence||Sixth offence||Seventh offence +|
|26 March 2020 to 3 July 2020||£60||£120||£240||£480||£960||£960||£960|
|4 July 2020 to 13 October||£100||£200||£400||£800||£1,600||£3,200||£3,200|
|14 October 2020 onwards||£200||£400||£800||£1,600||£3,200||£6,400||£6,400|
Note that the count of offences carries between periods. So, if there are two alleged offences in period 1, and then an alleged offence in period 3, the fine would still be for the £800 under period 3.
When do I need to pay an FPN by?
You have 28 days from the date of the FPN to pay. The amount must be paid in full within this time. However, note that if this is your first FPN regarding the coronavirus regulations and you pay within 14 days instead, then you only have to pay half. The details of how to pay, and who to pay to, should be given on your FPN.
What happens if I don’t pay an FPN?
If you don’t pay an FPN within the 28 days given, then the police and CPS can bring a charge against you. However, it is important to note that there is a time limit for them to do so.
The CPS have six months from the date of the offence to bring the information of the charge to the Magistrates’ court. If they miss this time limit, then they have no right to bring the charge. If they still try to, a defence lawyer should be able to have the charge thrown out on this basis.
This is very important; if more than six months have passed since the alleged offence under the coronavirus Regulations, then they cannot charge you with that offence. This is even if you were given an FPN in the meantime and you did not pay it.
However, it can be hard to tell whether they have met this time limit. The first time you will know you have been charged will likely be a summons from the Magistrates’ court. If this arrives before the six-month time limit is reached, then this defence is not available. However, if the summons arrives after the six-month time limit is reached, this still does not necessarily mean that the defence is available. It is possible that the CPS delivered the case to the magistrates in time, but then the magistrates delayed sending out the summons. If you receive a summons outside of the six-month time limit, the first thing you should do is ask your lawyer to check on the date that the case was delivered to the Magistrates’ court.
Can I challenge or fight an FPN?
There is no explicit way to appeal an FPN decision. Individual councils have the power to create one if they want, but they are under no obligation to.
As explained in the “What happens if I don’t pay an FPN” section above, you can be taken to court and charged with the original offence. Once you are in court, you have the right to defend yourself, as you would with any criminal charge. If you believe that the FPN was wrongfully applied, then this is your chance to challenge it.
It is important to note that being charged with an offence, instead of paying the FPN, often comes with added risk. FPNs are limited to the amounts listed above. If you are taken to court, then there is the potential for a criminal conviction (which will appear on your record) and there is no upper limit to the fine the court can hand down. This is on top of the time, stress and cost of criminal defence litigation.
However, as mentioned, the CPS do have to prove their case to a higher level in court. Therefore, if you believe that you have a good chance of defending the charge (e.g. it was wrongfully given and you can show this) then this route does offer you the chance to do so. An officer who claimed that they “reasonably believe” an offence was committed might change their mind if asked to prove it.
For further detail on FPNs, you can use Commons’ walkthrough tool here.