Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Bomb Hoaxes and the Public Interest

In my latest Bad Law internet column at The Lawyer, I set out how Paul Chambers - after merely making a joke on Twitter which caused no direct inconvenience whatsoever - was then arrested under the specific legislation which provides for bomb hoax offences.

He was then charged and prosecuted under a different piece of legislation - section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 - which was originally intended for abusers of public telephones.

The Crown Prosecution Service were able to do this because of the technological contingency of the internet now being deemed to part of the public telecommunications system.

In my Bad Law column I expand on the potential dangers in using this particular offence.

This prosecution seems to have happened because when the CPS realised they did not have sufficient evidence to prosecute him under the specific legislation, they believed that it was in the public interest to prosecute him (that is to aim to give someone a criminal record who otherwise would not have one) anyway, because it was a "bomb hoax".

One would have thought that the role of the CPS is to assess whether there is sufficient evidence for a conviction under a given offence and, if so, to decide whether it was still in the public interest to proceed.

However, it appears the CPS in the case of Mr Chambers decided on the public interest in prosecuting him first, and then sought to find an offence to do it under, deciding to use the hitherto fairly obscure 2003 offence.

If this is the case, I believe that injustices can occur.

I do not believe that the CPS should approach prosecutions in this way: as it means that instead of assessing the evidence against an offence, they would be assessing the offence against the evidence, fettered in doing so by a prior determination as to what the public interest demands.

There is not enough information so to come to a final view as to the motivations of the CPS in this case, though my Bad Law post sets out in full their responses to my queries last week.

I do not take "bomb hoaxes" lightly - I was brought up in a city hit by pub bombings in the 1970s - but I also do not take the misuse of criminal law lightly either.

In my view, as I set out more fully at Bad Law, if there was not sufficient evidence to prosecute Paul Chambers for the specific bomb hoax offence, then he surely should not have been prosecuted at all, given the manifestly trivial circumstances of his supposed "offence".


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Tom Morris said...

I'm going to have to disagree here too. Sometimes it is a perfectly legitamate strategy to prosecute someone for anything. That is, if they are actually a genuine danger to the public. In the Chambers case, substituting the Communications Act offence is ridiculous, but that is because what they are substituting it for is ridiculous: a joke on Twitter is not a bomb hoax.

Al Capone was never convicted for his role in the Saint Valentine's Day massacre - Capone was brought down by charges of income tax violations.

There doesn't seem to be the same problem with throwing any possible charge that will stick in the case of Capone - getting a gangster probably responsible for many gangland killings put away on tax charges seems perfectly reasonable.

Marianne said...

I totally disagree... I think you're tilting at windmills here, and that this isn't an injustice at all. I've left my full comment on The Lawyer.

ivan said...

When I was at school, teachers frequently threatened to "put a bomb under" some lazy student's posterior. This was purely metaphorical, but presumably today the anti-terrorism squad would take an interest in such comments. I'm waiting for someone to be arrested owing to a misunderstanding concerning a comment in relation to the inflation of a child's balloon.

Ginger Yellow said...

"2) A person is guilty of an offence if, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another, he—

(a) sends by means of a public electronic communications network, a message that he knows to be false,"

What the hell? Trolling is illegal now?

Ginger Yellow said...

Oh, and Marianne, while I fully understand and agree with the need for the law against harrassment and threatening behaviour to cover electronic communication, including Twitter etc, can you not agree that the Communications Act is incredibly broadly worded? I would imagine that fully half the population has breached the Act at some point by communicating a grossly offensive or indecent message, let alone lying to annoy someone.

Flay said...

Hi Allen. I'm trying to launch a campaign to get these charges dropped. As a guilty plea has already been entered I suppose now it's a matter of getting the case thrown out. Would you please support me in this? I'm having trouble getting critical mass. Thanks.