High Court to give "Twitter Joke Trial" appeal verdict

Lord Chief Justice to hand down judgment today

Later this morning the Lord Chief Justice will be handing down judgment for the High Court appeal of the "Twitter Joke Trial". 

This case is about whether a tweet constitutes a "communication of a menacing character" in circumstances where the tweet was self-evidently non-serious and caused no alarm or menace at the time.

In January 2010, an exasperated Paul Chambers suddenly saw news that his local airport was closed, thereby meaning he would not be able to travel to Northern Ireland to see a woman he had met through Twitter.  He tweeted to his 600 or so followers:

Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!

This was not sent to the airport.  Paul did not use the airport's Twitter address.  The tweet was clearly not meant to be credible: the use of hyperbolic language, the two swear words, and the excessive punctuation all point to the tweet being in effect a joke.  Even the ultimatum was absurd - the period given was a vague "week and a bit".  The plain meaning of the tweet was not that Paul wanted the airport to close or in any way menaced; this was a communication of someone who dearly wanted the airport to stay open.

However, some days later the tweet was found by an airport employee in an internet search.  He referred it to the airport security manager, who graded it "non-credible".  He in turn, because of process, passed it to airport security police.  They did nothing but referred it to South Yorkshire police.

And then, one fine day, and without having done anything wrong, Paul Chambers was arrested at his workplace by anti-terrorism police and marched in handcuffs to a police van in front of his colleagues.

After a day of interviews the police themselves realise the tweet was a joke intended for Paul's followers and decide not to charge for the "bomb hoax" offence for which he was arrested.  However, the police consult the Crown Prosecution Service.  The CPS decide to prosecute Paul under section 127(1) of the Communications Act 2003 for sending by means of a "public electronic communications network" a message "of a menacing character".  This offence was previously limited to telephony and dates back to the 1930s; but parliament - without debate - had widened it in 2003 to cover all internet communications.  Paul appears to have been one of the first prosecuted in respect of a communication sent over the internet.

Paul is then convicted in May 2010 by Doncaster Magistrates' Court and ordered to pay a fine and costs totaling £1000.  This conviction was upheld in November 2010 by Doncaster Crown Court by Judge Jacqueline Davis and two lay magistrates.  She ruled:

We are satisfied, on the evidence, that the message in question is menacing in its content and obviously so. It is difficult to imagine anything more clear. [...]

It is, in our judgment, menacing per se.

Paul was ordered to pay a further £1000 in costs.

Paul appealed to the High Court.  In February 2012, a two-judge court failed to agree, and a further appeal was ordered to take place before a three-judge court.  This hearing took place on 22 June 2012 before the Lord Chief Justice (who is also the head of the criminal justice system) and two other experienced criminal appeal judges.  

The appeal judgment is likely to deal with four matters: was Paul's tweet at the time it was found by the search engine still a message sent by means of a "public electronic communications network"; was the tweet as a matter of fact (or "actus reus") of a menacing character; was the tweet sent with sufficient intention that a criminal act be committed (the "mens reus"); and whether overall there was a violation of Paul's right to free expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The High Court has a wide jurisdiction: it can uphold the conviction; it can reduce (or increase) the sentence; it can discharge the conviction (which means that technically the offence was committed but Paul no longer has a criminal record); it can remit the case back for a re-trial; or it can grant the appeal outright and order an acquittal.

In the event Paul loses today the next step would be to apply to the Supreme Court for a further appeal on a matter of general public importance.

So today will be Paul's ninth day in court in a case which has now lasted two-and-a-half years.  

The decision is expected at 9.45 am.


David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and solicitor for Paul Chambers in this appeal.  He has been given permission to tweet the result from the High Court at @davidallengreen.  

There is a round-up of links on the last hearing at his Jack of Kent blog.




Royal Courts of Justice. Photograph: Getty Images

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage