3rd April 2020
The law firm Bindmans are bringing a challenge to the government guidance that a person can only leave where they live once a day for exercise and that exercise should be local.
If just reading of such a challenge means you have already formed A Strong Opinion that you now want to type, then this really is not the blogpost for you: other websites are available, and your comment below the line here will not be published.
This post instead sets out the problem and the applicable law, so that you can form a view based on the available information and the applicable law.
As a preliminary point, please note that this is a legal challenge to government guidance – and not to the Coronavirus Regulations themselves.
Formal government guidance – in effect, policy – can be challenged (in general terms) at the High Court if it is contrary to the law, or is unfair, or is disproportionate in its impact.
According to Bindmans, the relevant facts are as follows:
“[There are] two families with children with autistic spectrum disorder whose conditions necessitate them leaving the house more than once day for their own well-being.
“One child in particular is deliberately taken to a quiet location that is not local to them, because of their particular needs and where there is a far more limited risk of infection than if he were to remain in an urban environment.”
Bindmans then explain the problem:
“The requirement that everyone is now only able to leave once a day (and can only travel locally) makes it very difficult for these families to be able to manage their children’s high needs and promote their well-being, during a time when lots of disabled people are simultaneously struggling with reduced support from external agencies.
“Keeping them in urban environments also increases the risk of infection of them and others given they are unable to understand social distancing rules.”
Any sensible person reading this would accept that this is a practical problem and, in such circumstances, the parents should be able to take their child to a quiet location.
There would be no direct public health problems in doing so, and the families would comply with the guidance on social distancing – indeed the child is less likely to infect or be infected.
But a sensible view is one thing, what is the legal case?
Again, the legal challenge is to the guidance not the Regulations.
The guidance is being challenged because, if interpreted and applied by the police to the Regulations, it could lead to the parents facing criminal liability under the Coronavirus Regulations.
What the parents seek to do is, on the face of it, permitted under the letter of the Coronavirus Regulations – but if the police construe the Regulations in accordance with the government guidance then fixed penalty notices, prosecutions, fines, criminal convictions and criminal records could follow.
The solicitors aver that the guidance disproportionately affect fundamental rights :
“The social distancing measures being put in place by Government are clearly important, but they cannot be used to disproportionately interfere in the rights of those with protected characteristics, particularly those with mental illness, autism or similar conditions that necessitate leaving the house more than once per day.
“Such rights can clearly co-exist with the health measures being put in place and Parliament clearly did not think it necessary to impose the once per day restriction arbitrarily introduced by the Government.
“It is essential the Government needs to rethink this restrictive policy and allow appropriate flexibility where it is necessary and justified.”
The main legal basis of the challenge seems to be that the guidance contradicts the protections of the Equality Act 2010 (as well as under the Human Rights Act 1998).
Relevant here is that the mental health is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act.
A person protected characteristic has legal protection against direct and indirect discrimination (and the discrimination here would be indirect).
Any such discrimination then is subject to the four stage test under section 19(2) of the Equality Act.
In particular, are those who are disabled (the term in the statute) placed at a disadvantage?
There can be no doubt of this.
And so does the guidance go further than is necessary to protect the relevant public policy goal, that here would be the protection of public health in the current coronavirus emergency?
In my view, the guidance is disproportionate in two ways.
First, as long as the affected families comply with social distancing measures, then the public policy goal is unaffected.
And second, there does not need a complete change to the guidance to address this problem, just a further exception for those with relevant physical and mental health issues so they are able to take more exercise and to be travel further than their locality, when necessary.
Such a modified approach would still comply with the Coronavirus Regulations, and it would not affect the position of the greater number of people.
The government is expected to respond today or tomorrow, and it may be that the government modifies its guidance to address these concerns.
But if the government does not shift its position then the next step would be a formal legal challenge.
The current emergency does not mean that the law of the land has been jettisoned – the EqualityAct and other laws are still in force – and there is certainly nothing wrong with the government being held to account by the courts at this time.
And if those protected by the Equality Act are facing practical discrimination that goes further than the goal of dealing with the current public health emergency, then it is right that their legal rights be protected and enforced.
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