Challenging Penalty Notices to stop racism & criminalisation in UK

Black Women’s Rape Action Project [BWRAP]and Legal Action for Women [LAW] recently got a penalty notice [PN] withdrawn. It had been issued against the son of one of their volunteers, a young man who suffers from severe trauma and has been picked on by police on a number of occasions. BWRAP and LAW assert that the issuing of penalty notices is being used as a “stop and search on the basis of suspicion alone” known as the “sus law” and that they are being used disproportionately against young people and particularly those from Black and immigrant communities. Below they explain how they got the PN withdrawn.

What is a PN?
The Home Office says: “Penalty notices are not the same as criminal convictions. However, failure to pay your fine may result in higher fines or imprisonment.” What is not spelled out is that a PN stays on your record and can be brought up if you are charged with subsequent offences. You are even asked about them if you apply for car insurance! They are often implemented in a discriminatory way and contribute to the increased criminalisation of people, particularly young, Black and immigrant people.

Details of the case we won
On 14 April 2008, Mr G was charged outside his home by two police officers under Section 5 of the Public Order Act, and issued with a PN for “causing harassment, alarm or distress”. Mr G is a Black man in his 20s. This was the latest incident in a history of harassment Mr G has suffered from the police since he complained about being abused whilst in custody at Stoke Newington Police Station in August 2005. During the last two years, he has been picked up six times and taken into custody four times. No evidence of wrongdoing has ever been presented and no charges have been brought. Mr G has no criminal record. Since the 2005 incident, Mr G has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The police who arrested Mr G were informed of his mental health condition at the time.

A solicitor who attended the police station advised Mr G to accept a PN despite his assertion of innocence. Desperate to be released and in an extremely distressed state, Mr G agreed and was given a fixed PN fine of £80.

Knowing of the record of police harassment against Mr G and worried that the PN would be used against him in the future, BWRAP and LAW met with Mr G’s solicitor to ask what could be done to overturn the PN. He was initially reluctant to challenge the PN and made the case that the racism Mr G would face in a magistrate’s court would almost certainly result in a conviction and a criminal record!

We felt strongly that Mr G should not have been bullied into accepting a PN when he had not committed any crime, and were concerned that his previously clean record should not be tarnished. Given that Mr G had already been targeted by the police, a record would have increased his vulnerability to further targeting and the seriousness of its consequences.

We researched guidelines on the police treatment of people with mental health problems, and in consultation with his solicitor and Mr G’s family we wrote to the Metropolitan police asking them to “extinguish any further action on the Penalty Notice”. Our submissions argued that:

In taking Mr G into custody and imposing a PN on him, “no consideration was given to his illness, which includes a heightened fear of being incarcerated”.

No consideration was given to the Independent Police Complaints Commission report that “being in a cell can worsen some individual’s mental distress; police custody suites may not have adequate health facilities to support an individual with mental health problems for long periods; about 50% of deaths in police custody are of people with some form of mental health problem.”

“Mr G has no cash income and lives on supermarket vouchers . . . he has no means of paying the Penalty Charge imposed on him.”

“It is not in the public interest to pursue a case against someone who is traumatised and who has no means of paying the fine.”

The police dismissed our representations. Mr G’s solicitor, encouraged by our efforts wrote threatening High Court action, citing that:

“The penalty Charge Notice system for alleged criminal offences has to be administered with great sensitivity given its reduction in the rights of alleged offenders and, most particularly those most vulnerable defendants of all, those who have mental health difficulties . . . “Crown prosecutors must balance the desirability of diverting a defendant who is suffering from significant mental or physical ill health with the need to safeguard the general public”

On 22 August 2008, the Metropolitan police finally conceded and agreed to take no further action, concluding that “it is not in the public interest to continue with a prosecution against [Mr G] in these circumstances.”