Criticism by former Supreme Court justice Lord Sumption of apparent over-reach by police officers enforcing Covid-19 lockdown restrictions appears to have struck a chord in the legal profession.
Responding to reports of police actions over the weekend, Lord Sumption told BBC Radio 4 yesterday: 'This is what a police state is like. It’s a state in which the government can issue orders or express preferences with no legal authority and the police will enforce ministers’ wishes.' He accused officers of exceeding their powers in trying to stop people from taking exercise in open country 'simply because ministers have said that they would prefer us not to'.
Jenny Wiltshire, head of serious and general crime at London firm Hickman & Rose solicitors, said that Lord Sumption's criticisms were correct. 'Based on incidents which have been reported in the press, some forces seem to have acted more on what politicians say about the law than what the law actually is.'
She noted that one police force's claim that it is illegal to drive to the countryside for a walk is not supported by any law. 'Nor is there anything in the new Covid legislation stopping people from leaving their homes more than once a day. In light of this, some police forces’ claims that certain activities are now "banned" seem hard to square with the law and may amount to a significant legal overreach.'
According to press reports the National Police Chiefs Council and College of Policing are updating guidance to remind officers that, sumpwhile certain actions such as driving to exercise may be unwise, they are not prohibited by the emergency powers.
*The Law Society is keeping the coronavirus situation under review and monitoring the advice it receives from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Public Health England.