Twitter Joke Trial update
BY David Allen Green, solicitor, New Statesman blogger and author of The Jack of Kent blog
In May 2010, Paul Chambers was convicted at Doncaster Magistrates’ Court of a single offence under section 127(1) of the Communications Act 2003 in respect of sending over a public electronic communications network a message of a menacing character. He was fined £385 plus £15 “victim fee” and £500 prosecution costs. He lost an appeal to Doncaster Crown Court in November 2010.
This “Twitter Joke Trial” case is now infamous. The supposedly menacing message was in fact an exasperated jest. Paul did not want an airport to be menaced. He certainly did not want it closed, as he wanted to fly from there so as to stay with a new girlfriend. He did not send the communication to the airport or use its formal Twitter name. He sent it only to those of his few hundred followers who happened to have been reading his tweets at the time. He didn’t give it another thought until, one fine day, a number of Doncaster police attended his workplace to arrest him.
The next step in the case is to appeal to the High Court using the rare procedure known as “appeal by case stated”. This is essentially an appeal on points of law. Paul’s appeal will be on the basis that the Magistrates’ and Crown Courts misdirected themselves as to the correct tests for “actus reus” (the culpable facts) and “mens rea” (the guilty intention) as well as misapplying Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights. The High Court appeal should be heard later this year. Thanks to the Twitter Joke Trial Fund and a fund-raising and celebrity-studded concert held on Friday, Paul is now in a good position for this appeal. Ben Emmerson QC and other barristers have been able to put together a strong 32 page “skeleton argument” – a benefit which most criminal appellants do not have, let alone one who has not incurred a custodial sentence.
Why does all this matter? This case is an outrage because it shows the casual way the British state can impose criminal liability (and Paul has now lost two jobs because of his conviction and may never be able to work as an accountant again); because it shows that the law enforcement agencies do not understand social media and also do not have senses of humour or of proportion; and because it shows that a good and decent person can, with the help of others, make a stand and say to those who wish to use the coercive power of law that such an abuse of legal power is wrong. Paul, like the libel defendant Simon Singh, is a person caught up in the absurdity of how the English legal system deals with what should be a matter of simple free expression. And like Simon he intends to use the English legal system to put things right, when previously the system has got things horribly wrong.
David Allen Green has now posted on his own blog… this important update…
We shall, I hope, discuss events briefly in our Without Prejudice podcast this week.