Rule Britannia – a free country? Best justice in the world? You have to be joking, Guv!

Before I get lynched by a herd of over refreshed ranting Libertarians after a night out on Twitter or trolled by shaven headed knuckle draggers who want Ingerland for the Ingerlish – whoever they are – let me preface this fairly serious post with the remark that there is a great deal to be proud of in our heritage, in our country and in our mores – but there is a fair bit we need to think about seriously if we are to be a truly progressive country with a justice system and observance of human rights truly worthy of the name.

Over the last 10 years we have seen an extraordinary erosion in our civil liberties – detention without trial, control orders, cctv, proposals for ID cards, the misuse of RIPA,  an increasingly authoritarian stance to regulation of society, a growing intolerance to rights of freedom of speech (libel and privacy law come to mind)  and a creeping acceptance that ‘national security’ interests merit such erosion….to list but a few.  I don’t need to rehearse examples of this – the literature, press and blogs are out there for all to see.  That much of this erosion happened under a Labour government is the reason, for the present, why I have decided to go independent and non-aligned politically until such time as Labour, or other party, delivers a coherent and truly progressive plan for governance of our country without the need for authoritarian and repressive laws and governs in accordance with a rule of law which we can be proud of and, that old fashioned concept, ‘consent’ to.

Nick Clegg is spearheading the repeal of ‘bad laws’ and wishes to bolster our civil liberties. I very much hope he is successful in persuading his Coalition partners to do this and to examine this carefully.  What Nick Clegg will also need to grasp, I’m afraid, is that government cannot claim to have set in place a system of rights, a progressive approach to government, without the machinery to enforce the compact between state and people and people with each other.  Plans to cut courts, plans to cut criminal and civil  legal aid beyond the bone will severely damage the reality of rights, civil and criminal,  in this country – simply because people will not be able to afford to go to court or defend themselves adequately should court action be necessary.

That said, I turn to the purpose of this brief post:

“The possession of great powers by the state is not a reason for using them – rather (it) should prompt a principled determination to ensure that the permissible exercise of such powers is strictly defined, regulated and monitored so as to guarantee that any intrusion into liberty and privacy of the individual is fully justified by an obviously superior community interest.”

Lord Bingham, former Lord Chief Justice and Senior Law Lord

Twitter and terrifying tale of modern Britain

Nick Cohen writing in The Observer today: Paul Chambers has felt the full force of state persecution, simply for sending a tweet.

The head of MI5 has warned we must take the threat of new Islamist atrocities seriously. If the abuse of antiterrorist legislation in the Paul Chambers case is a guide, the people who most need reminding of the importance of seriousness, are MI5′s colleagues in the criminal justice system.

The 27-year-old worked for a car parts company in Yorkshire. He and a woman from Northern Ireland started to follow each other on Twitter. He liked her tweets and she liked his and boy met girl in a London pub. They got on as well in person as they did in cyberspace. To the delight of their followers, Paul announced he would be flying from Robin Hood airport in Doncaster to Northern Ireland to meet her for a date.

In January, he saw a newsflash that snow had closed the airport. “Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed,” he tweeted to his friends. “You’ve got a week… otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!”

People joke like this all the time. When they say in a bar: “I’ll strangle my boyfriend if he hasn’t done the washing up” or post on Facebook: “I’ll murder my boss if he makes me work late”, it does not mean that the bodies of boyfriends and bosses will soon be filling morgues.

You know the difference between making a joke and announcing a murder, I’m sure. Apparently the forces of law and order do not.

Paul Chambers was prosecuted and was fined.  He now has a criminal record. He was fired from his job.  The appeal is coming up this week. David Allen Green who writes the excellent Jack of Kent blog has covered this in great detail and is, I understand, helping Paul Chambers. As the Jack of Kent blog has covered this in detail all the way through I happily refer you to the latest blog post.

Why the Paul Chambers case matters

As Jack of Kent writes…

This week will see the appeal by Paul Chambers of his conviction under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003.

He was convicted – and so given a criminal record – for what was, and what was intended to be, a joke contained in a tweet.

(By way of background, see my posts here, here, and here.)

At no stage in this story does any person who knew better – either at airport security, the police, or the CPS – act in a sensible and responsible manner.

None of these people believe this is a serious matter – the airport security judge it “non-credible”, the police seem to eventually accept it was not a significant issue, the CPS know it is not a bomb hoax – but Paul is to be prosecuted anyway, just because no person can be bothered to stop an illiberal process which would give a blameless man a criminal record.

My long preamble had a purpose – to set this case in a context.  The Rule of Law is an essential concept in any progressive and civilised society – but it must be a Rule of Law which can be respected. The tabloid media will always stir up nonsense about judges being out of touch, judges being too lenient, politicians being too soft on crime, polls to show that the majority want to bring back hanging, birching and the like – and the tabloids will be the first to criticise the state, the DPP et al,  when prosecutions can’t be brought because of the law, when our senior judges rule against the government of the day because they, the government, are not complying with the law of our country. Much of that is press waffle tailored to an agenda,  and ill thought out waffle at that when examined closely.

It is ironic that such care was given to a decision not to prosecute the Policeman in the tragic Ian Tomlinson case – a decision which  provoked kneejerking on an industrial scale by those who did not fully appreciate the legal and evidential difficulties faced by the DPP – yet the DPP seems not to have exercised such care in the Chambers case and is engaged in this shameful prosecution of a fairly young man who admits he was a bit daft to tweet as he did;  a tweet which would have been regarded by any sane or sensible person as a joke and which not even the Police, now, regard as a genuine threat.

I hope the appeal is successful – not just for the sake of Paul Chambers, but for the sake of our Rule of Law. We can’t respect a Rule of Law which is based on such ludicrous decisions to prosecute – and the government, the law, the police, the authorities,  are going to need a lot of respect from those subject to it in the difficult years ahead.

We must repeal bad laws, we must as a country use powers wisely and not vindictively or indiscriminately… or here, absurdly.  The DPP may well wish to remember (and, given his background as a practising barrister, knows this well) that respect is a two way street.  We give you credit when you are faced with difficult decisions and are exposed to ill informed criticism.  I don’t think it too much to ask that the DPP recognises and addresses criticism when it is well founded.

As ever, your thoughts are welcome. I simply express a personal view – and you may do the same if you wish to in the comments section.  If you want to keep up on developments on this – The Jack of Kent blog is the place to do so.

***

You may find this excellent  technical analysis by Andrew Sharpe, partner at Charles Russell,  on why this is bad law of great interest

Tweet in haste, repent at leisure

6 thoughts on “Rule Britannia – a free country? Best justice in the world? You have to be joking, Guv!

  1. I agree and hope Paul Chambers’ appeal is successful.

    I have always understood that one of the roles of an independent judicary is to act as a form of quality control on legislation through the appeals process.

  2. I hope the appeal is successful – not just for the sake of Paul Chambers, but for the sake of our Rule of Law. We can’t respect a Rule of Law which is based on such ludicrous decisions to prosecute – and the government, the law, the police, the authorities, are going to need a lot of respect from those subject to it in the difficult years ahead.

    Well said. Thank you.

  3. I, too, hope that Paul’s appeal is successful. Otherwise, in future, we will all need to be careful what we say in the canteen or pub.

    Talking of canteens, I see the ‘Pope Plot’ has been dismissed as humour.

  4. The decision to procecute seems to have been based on some out of control beaurocracy that seemes intent to reduce intelligent professionals to box ticking morons who pass the problem on to someone else, without someone stopping and looking at the situation as a whole and realising the overeaction of the apparatus of the state.

    It is lamentable that someone along the way from the Police Inspector to the CPS never stopped and realised that this prosecution in no way served the interests of justice or the tax payer.

    Perhaps this is Labours real legacy, an unstoppable beaurocracy that removes decision making from suitable professionals to central government dictats and targets.

    Somehow I doubt that the current government are willing to loosen the control they wield, despite their platitudes toward the topic.

  5. This may seem trite given this posting is about some of the major intrusions into personal liberty, but I also have a feeling that we’ve lost a lot with the ever growing list of minor insults to our freedom of action through state regulation.

    I’m sure many of these were for good reason, but we can’t wire up a light fitting in a kitchen, the spread of CRB checks, badly thought out laws like those on “extreme porn”, the HIPs saga. There’s also that never ending drone of nagging from the authorities on how we should live our lives; not drink too much, not eat too much salt, conform to some “five a day” regime (many of which appear to be authoritative, despite being, at best, being informed guess).

    Now I wouldn’t like to go overboard on this – I’m not a libertarian that would like to see people in the streets with handguns, but this degree of intrusion does, I feel, take something away from life. The “greater good” or, if “it only saves one life” argument holds sway. I think it is necessary to think long and hard before the state seeks to remove personal responsibility and replace it by legislation. I think it is in the DNA of many politicians to try and fix every problem through legislation. Maybe I could be provocative and wonder if this is due to the number of lawyers in parliament.

  6. Could not agree more with the entirety of this post. If I may say so, very well put.

    When Parliament grants powers to State officials it should ensure that those powers are expressly limited both as to who may use them and also for what purposes. To much modern legislation is broad-brush granting Ministers powers to make orders / regulations and then the Minister is free to hand the powers to all manner of officials. Parliament pays little attention to such subordinate legislation. Indeed, it pays pretty scant attention to some of the major Bills.

    In my view, the coalition has yet to demonstrate that it is even developing a “coherent and truly progressive plan for the governance of our country”. Indeed, I think there are grounds for despair at most of what they are doing.

    If and when people like Clegg get round to presenting some “freedom bill” it will need very careful study since politicians are good at banner headlines (“We have improved your freedom”) when, in reality, they may have made matters worse. The devil will be in the detail.

    As for Paul Chambers – this is a nasty “deterrent” prosecution brought to warn others. It is an abuse of State power. If being stupid (even when one’s plans are frustrated) was a criminal offence then almost everyone would have been in trouble at some time or other. I sometimes shudder when one thinks back to student days …. etc.

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