One big questions remains following the conclusion of the Metropolitan Police’s investigation into Covid lockdown parties in Downing Street: how did the Prime Minister escape with just one fine?
Boris Johnson received a fixed penalty notice (FPN) for attending his birthday celebration in the Cabinet room in June 2020, but was reported to have attended four other events for which fines have been issued.
Now, one criminal defence lawyer has suggested that if the Prime Minister had access to more expensive legal representation than junior civil servants, this could have helped him to avoid more than one penalty.
Stressing that she could not “state categorically” the reasons for the Met’s deicsion, Lucinda Nicholls, told i: “I think what probably happened is they [the Met] were more susceptible to receiving the information about the circumstances because he was Prime Minister, which would never have happened if you were a member of the public.
“I would assume that the reason there has only been one fixed penalty notice [for the Prime Minister] is because they have allowed the opportunity for there to be a proper investigation with the financial backing of lawyers, which have allowed them to address more information and evidence than they otherwise would have done if it was a member of the public.”
Ms Nicholls, who has represented 26 cases over alleged Covid breaches in gyms – 24 of which she found in her client’s favour – added: “I am sure and I know that every single person with the Government, all of the ministers, that were part of the investigation were lawyered up.
“And I know that the amount of money these particular lawyers would have cost, they would have ensured that there was some sort of senior personnel within the police that would have been dealing with this.
“He [Mr Johnson] has the funds available to him to engage with the authorities in order to minimise the risks and negotiate the process. Joe Bloggs on the street doesn’t.”
A total of 126 FPNs were issued by the Met to 83 people, over gatherings held on eight dates between May 2020 and April 2021.
Sue Gray’s report into lockdown breaches across Government buildings is set to be published within days after the end of the Met investigation.
Junior staff in Downing Street are reportedly angry at being issued FPNs for gatherings that the prime minister attended, but wasn’t punished for.
Police would have been “been well within their remit” to issue the penalties to everybody present at gatherings where there was a suspicion of lockdown-breaching offences, Ms Nicholls said.
“If one person got fined for being at an event why didn’t everyone? That is a legitimate question,” she added.
“If one person at that event is accused of breaching regulations then I am confused as to why everyone wouldn’t have received a Fixed Penalty Notice for exactly the same thing.
“There is no logic to that.”
She described the Covid regulations as a “minefield” that had led to problems in how police enforced the rules.
“I think the way the police have investigated and enforced the legislation from the outset for for everyone has been inconsistent and on a general basis I would even go so far as saying it could be seen as incompetent,” she said.
“That is not their fault. That is the problem though. Nobody is going to take responsibility for how poorly this legislation has been enforced because nobody has had any training, advice, or support for understanding the legislation itself.
“If the Prime Minister himself is saying that he was confused with the regulations, why are you prosecuting members of the public?”
Siobhain Egan, a criminal lawyer and director at Lewis Nedas, said “everybody and his uncle” at the Met would have reviewed the force’s decision to only issue one FPN to Mr Johnson.
“When the Met are assessing any kind of investigation, even one that is as high profile as this, they have got codes that they have to adhere to, so it is all evidentially based and they have to adhere to the Crown Prosecution’s code,” she said.
“Is there evidence? Is it in the interests of justice to pursue it? Unless somebody from the Met is going to speak to you and say, ‘This is the definitive reason for the conclusion we drew,’ I would have to say to you they must have felt that the evidence wasn’t there, or it wasn’t in the interests of justice to pursue against him.”
The Met Police said in a statement: “A team of 12 detectives worked through 345 documents, including emails, door logs, diary entries and witness statements; 510 photographs and CCTV images; and 204 questionnaires as part of a careful and thorough inquiry.
“Each line of enquiry looked at the date, the circumstances behind each event, and the actions of the individual, benchmarked against the legislation at that time, to establish whether their behaviour met the criminal threshold for an FPN referral to be made.
“We took great care to ensure that for each referral we had the necessary evidence to prosecute the FPN at court, were it not paid.
“It’s important to remember that during the 11-month period under investigation, legislation changed multiple times, so not all events were subject to the same restrictions.”