JUST shy of £50,000 of financial court bills have been dished out for Dorset Covid rule breaches behind closed doors without a plea being entered.

From a total of 43 coronavirus regulations prosecutions against people from the BCP Council area since the start of August last year, 34 involved convictions where the offence was proved against the defendants.

This means no formal plea to the allegation had been given in writing by the accused before the matter was handled behind closed doors at Weymouth Magistrates’ Court.

The head of Transform Justice, a national charity which works for a fair, human, open and effective justice system, said she was “totally horrified” by the figures.

Penelope Gibbs, director of the charity, said: “Our concern about this level of non-response is that it is not effective participation and nobody quite knows why."

Unless defendants have pleaded not guilty, cases involving offences relating to Covid lockdown restrictions and self-isolation rules have been dealt with almost entirely through the single justice procedure.

The process involves a lone magistrate sitting in private and dealing with cases from paperwork sent to the court. The accused individuals are not required to attend court – submitting a plea in writing. If no plea is received the case proceeds regardless. Not guilty pleas lead to an open court hearing.

Members of the press and public are unable to attend these hearings unlike normal magistrates’ and crown court hearings.

The 34 proved coronavirus cases, which all involved offenders from the BCP Council area, saw the defendants handed at least a £1,100 fine along with orders to pay court costs and a victim surcharge.

In one case, a man was ordered to pay a total of £3,280 after the court found he failed to comply with self-isolation requirements following a positive coronavirus test.

The total financial bill from the 34 proved cases was £49,303.

Each of the nine cases in which defendants submitted guilty pleas saw significantly reduced financial penalties, with the court required to give credit for admissions of guilt.

The largest financial penalty handed out for someone who pleaded guilty was £439 when totalling up the fine, costs and surcharge.

The overall bill from the nine guilty plea cases was £3,517.

The date the alleged Covid rules breaches were committed on ranged from November 11, 2020, to March 21, 2021.

Cases have usually been taken to court when the accused has not agreed to pay the fixed penalty notice issued by police.

Alleged offences involving people from the BCP Council area that went through the single justice procedure process have included reported incidents at university halls of residence, people gathering at Poole Quay and even one person being in the passenger seat of a van.

Ms Gibbs said 99 per cent of coronavirus offences are being dealt with outside of a public court room. She said they were following a pattern witnessed across the single justice procedure system.

“People are sent their charge in the post and for all single justice procedure offences, which includes TV licence related matters and not having the right train ticket, there is an incredibly high percentage of people who do not plead guilty or not guilty,” said Ms Gibbs.

Bournemouth Echo: Penelope Gibbs, director of Transform JusticePenelope Gibbs, director of Transform Justice

She added: “It could be that people don’t understand the paperwork, it could be that they don’t even receive the letter because it is snail mail with no tracking and it could be that the recipients have mental health problems, learning difficulties, which means psychologically they find it hard to engage with a charge that comes through the post.

“This is not the way the justice system should work.

"The justice system relies on people engaging and participating and that involves pleading guilty or not guilty.

"It is not their fault. It is the system that is not working.”

Ms Gibbs said nobody should be convicted under the single justice procedure without more strenuous efforts than carried out at present to check the accused has received the charge and understands it.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) says there are several levels of protection to single justice procedure hearings to ensure that justice is done and seen to be done.

This includes all defendants having the option to ask for a hearing in open court, a court cannot proceed in absence of a defendant’s plea without proof of a single justice procedure notice being served and if there is an error in the procedure for any reason, the court can revoke the conviction and sentence.

The MoJ also says that single justice procedure proceedings can be more transparent and accessible than traditional proceedings, with media able to request prosecution statements and the defendant’s representations rather than attending in person and taking notes on what was heard in court.

In the Daily Echo’s experience to date, obtaining these papers has proved challenging.

The MoJ said “we know we have more to do to execute this consistently and are working to make improvements”.

If you are interested in court and crime news, stay up to date with all our latest updates in our dedicated Facebook group. To find out more and to join click here.