The Isle of Man Government has introduced a flurry of secondary legislation in response to COVID-19, under the Emergency Powers Act 1936. Recent reports by the BBC, the Guardian and Isle of Man Today paint an alarming picture of excessive policing and enforcement responses to breaches of these regulations, including the drastic step of imprisonment.
As of April 24, police have arrested over 40 people in a two-week period for breaching COVID-19 regulations. At least four people have been jailed.
- A 59 year old homeless man who had left his hotel because he was ‘frightened’ to stay there due to another guest, and refused to return when stopped by police. He was sentenced to four weeks in jail and advised by the Bailiff to ‘find somewhere to live’ by the time he is released.
- A 52 year old man who had been shopping and offered to pick up supplies for a friend with poor mobility. He was arrested following an afternoon of drinking at the friend’s home after he brought over the supplies. The man’s defence advocate noted his good intentions to help his friends, and his ongoing struggles with alcohol abuse. He was sentenced to four weeks in jail.
- A 20 year old man who had been told to self-isolate and was subsequently arrested by police for failing to appear at a testing facility and for leaving his home. He had gone out to walk his grandfather’s dog and exercise for two to three hours. He was sentenced to six-weeks imprisonment.
- A 48 year-old man who was issued a police warning for breaching COVID-19 regulations and was subsequently witnessed socialising in a park. He was sentenced to four weeks in prison.
- A 26 year old man is reportedly facing a possible three month jail sentence and a £10,000 fine for failing to self-isolate upon arriving on the island by ferry.
These illustrations indicate a reflexive presumption by police and courts to enforce regulations through arrest and imprisonment. This raises serious concerns about the application of the rule of law, unchecked police discretion and the undermining of criminal justice principles which affirm imprisonment as a last resort. Moreover, it is difficult to point to any policy or public interest justifications for imprisoning people in response to COVID-19. Protecting public health need not be accompanied by criminal enforcement to be effective, and imprisonment is an entirely disproportionate (and resource intensive) response without any real benefit outside of punitively criminalising individuals. It is also unsurprising that those arrested and sentenced to prison include a homeless person and an individual with substance abuse issues. As ever, vulnerable and marginalised members of the community experience the brunt of enhanced police powers.
Related regulations made in the Isle of Man include those modifying court processes with respect to bail processes, and introducing the use of live links in proceedings. This poses additional concerns about procedural fairness guarantees for those caught by the emergency powers. Open questions remain as to how these changes are affecting the rights of individuals to obtain and present evidence in their defence, and the extent to which emergency approaches are affecting bail refusals, noting that the High Bailiff has warned that those breaching COVID-19 regulations will be dealt with ‘extremely seriously’. Also concerning are the implications (mental health and otherwise) for those facing prolonged periods of isolation within prison.
While the Isle of Man is a self-governing British Crown dependency, it is an unfortunate case study highlighting the implications of expanded police powers and blunt enforcement measures. This has clear parallels within the UK, where trends indicating excessive police responses are similarly raising alarms.
By Sarah Sacher