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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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.