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.)

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle