Prosecuting ‘coronavirus coughs’

This post was contributed by Ms Charlotte Crilly, Teaching Fellow and Module Convenor for Undergraduate Laws.

Cartoon woman coughing

The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has warned that anyone using coronavirus to threaten emergency and essential workers could face serious criminal charges. This comes as a result of a number of reports of police, shop workers and others being deliberately coughed or spat on by people who claim to have coronavirus.

The DPP has stated that coughing directed against people who can be defined as ‘emergency workers’ can be prosecuted under the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018. Coughing directed at other essential key workers and members of the public could be charged as common assault.

The Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018 came into force on 13 November 2018, and provides for certain aggravated offences, when these are perpetrated against an emergency worker who is acting in the exercise of their functions as such a worker. Section 3(1) defines an emergency worker which includes police officers, prison officers, fire fighters and frontline National Health Service (NHS) workers. The effect of the Act is as follows:

• Section 1 increases the penalty for common assault and battery when these offences are committed against an emergency worker. While common assault and battery are ordinarily triable summarily only, with a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment or a fine or both, where the 2018 Act applies, the offence may be tried either way, and the maximum penalty on conviction is increased to 12 months’ imprisonment or a fine or both.
• Section 2 of the Act creates an aggravating factor for a specified set of offences committed against an emergency worker. The offences include some of those found in the Offences against the Person Act 1861, sexual assault and manslaughter. The court must consider the fact that the offence was committed against an emergency worker as a factor that increases the seriousness of that offence and that could therefore increase the sentence.

The Sentencing Council has also recently issued interim guidance to the courts stating that when sentencing common assault offences involving threats relating to coronavirus, the courts should treat this as an aggravating feature of the offence.

In the longer term, under a consultation published by the Sentencing Council on 16 April, draft guidelines propose

‘A new high-culpability factor in common assault offences of “Intention to cause fear of serious harm, including disease transmission”, and inclusion of “spitting or coughing” as an aggravating factor’.

These proposed revisions to sentencing guidelines would apply to all common assault offences, not just those against emergency workers, and would apply to coughing or spitting in general, without a necessary link to coronavirus. The changes are not scheduled to come into force until 2021.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has already charged and prosecuted a number of people for deliberately coughing on emergency workers and other essential workers, with some offenders being sentenced to imprisonment, showing that this new challenge for the criminal law is being taken seriously.

Further Reading

Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018

CPS news releases of 9th April 2020 and 26th March 2020

Criminal law week article, ‘Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018’ (CLW/18/33/11).

Courts and Tribunals Judiciary, ‘Sentencing Council consultation – sentencing guidelines for assault and attempted murder’

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