Charlie Freeman ran into trouble with police when he organised a charity fundraising concert in Portobello Road last Christmas, having spent lockdown providing musical entertainment to passers-by from the window of his home.
The 43-year-old musician said he was told by officers on the night that he could expect a £200 fine, but was taken aback when a letter later arrived threatening him with a £10,000 penalty.
Freeman emailed police to explain what had happened and “never heard another peep” before he left London to go on tour.
The singer said he believed he had escaped censure, only to discover earlier this month that he had been prosecuted and issued with a £1,400 fine.
Freeman’s email to police - explaining that the festive carol singing event had been for charity - was not passed to Westminster magistrates court before his case was dealt with.
A written notice of intended prosecution was sent to Freeman’s Portobello Road home in April, after he had left London, but he was not contacted again on email.
“I didn’t know about it”, the former BBC Featured artist told the Standard. “All I know is they contacted me by letter, with an email address to write back to. I wrote a very long and impassioned email setting out my case and never heard anything back, at which point I assumed that was the end of it. They didn’t respond and I thought they had accepted my plea....Maybe my email never got seen.”
Freeman was among 26 people convicted of Covid-19 offences on May 12 under the Single Justice Procedure (SJP). Just seven defendant entered guilty pleas and 19 were sentenced after the case against them was “proved in absence”.
The Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland, has been urged to stop SJP prosecutions for Covid offences, over fears of a lack of scrutiny when cases are dealt with behind-closed doors instead of open court.
Freeman only discovered the existence of the prosecution against him when contacted by the Standard, and had less than a week to pay his fine before bailiff action could begin.
Freeman had advertised a ‘Christmas Street Party’ hosted by The Freeman Foundation on December 3 last year, the day after the second national lockdown ended and London entered Tier 2 restrictions.
Police were called out to reports of a “huge party” and PC Daniel Evans said in a statement that more than 30 people were inside the musician’s home when he arrived.
Freeman said he has been playing music from his window to entertain people in Portobello Road throughout lockdown, and “decided to do a Christmas street party” with a small choir and mince pies.
“I didn’t realise this, but if you encourage any gathering in the street of any sort that would be contravening the laws of the lockdown”, he said.
“A lot of people gathered in the street, singing along. I’ve got to put my hands up – however of a nice idea it might have been, it was definitely in breach of the regulations.
“There were quite a few people, it spilled into the house, and it was hard to control the numbers.”
He added the police officers who attended were “very understanding” and suggested he would face a £200 fine. “When I got the letter stating £10,000, you can imagine I nearly fell off my chair”, he said.
He sent his email to the ACRO Criminal Records Office after receiving the initial letter, and was promised that his message would be sent on to the Met Police. However it was not among the bundle of papers considered by the magistrate.
Freeman, who released the single “It’s Christmas” four days after the run-in with police, was found guilty in his absence of holding a gathering of more than 30 people in private dwelling in Tier 2 area.
He was ordered to pay a £1400 fine as well as £240 in court costs and fees by June 9. The Metropolitan Police, who brought the prosecution, were contacted for comment.
A spokesperson for the ACRO Criminal Records Office said: “ACRO is supporting the policing response to the Covid-19 pandemic by administering fixed penalty notices (FPNs) issued under coronavirus legislation, on behalf of police forces in England and Wales.
“Unpaid or contested fines are returned to the originating police force along with any supporting information or evidence provided by the subject.
“The force then reviews the case and decides whether to proceed the matter to court.
“Once the case is returned to force, ACRO has no involvement in the next steps of the court process.”