Tag Archives: Prosecutions

Prosecutions by PC Plod

Another day another seemingly radical cost-saving endeavour thought up by the government.

Recent news is that the Attorney General Dominic Grieve QC is advocating a new role for police officers. In short, they’re going to be turned into Magistrates’ Court prosecutors! His suggestion is that police officers should prosecute summary criminal matters. At present, these cases are prosecuted by members of the Crown Prosecution Service or instructed counsel. The idea is designed to free-up the overworked CPS prosecutors from the simple and mundane non-contested matters.

Presumably these police officers will be legally educated, trained and will have undergone the requisite training contract or pupillage to allow them rights of audience in our courts? Erm, no. Presumably they will be independent prosecutors, constantly bearing in mind their overriding duty to the court rather than their colleagues at the police station? Hhhmmm…you can see the potential difficulties there.

At present if independent counsel is briefed to prosecute a “list” of matters in the Magistrates’ Court, they will be authorised to present the case but have no authority to make decisions. If, for example, none of the prosecution witnesses attend court, we, as experienced barristers, cannot take the decision to offer no evidence on our own volition, but have to telephone the CPS to take instructions. Invariably we will speak to an administrative assistant who will have had no prior dealings with the matter. They will ask for our advice, we will advise and they will then instruct us to follow our advice! So what will happen when PC Plod prosecutes? PC Plod having no legal qualifications, no court experience and no appropriate training! Am I the only one thinking this isn’t going to work?!

The Guardian reports on the matter here.

DPP issues interim guidance on social media prosecutions

Scales of justice

Today the DPP issued his interim guidance on social media prosecutions.

The guidance is available here: DPP SocMed Guide

The DPP has requested that the guidance is read and responses submitted. On a cursory glance, it looks as though the guidance largely follows a common sense approach, however there has already been disquiet on Twitter concerning the DPP’s view that ‘deeply unpopular’ messages ought to be policed (see @ajcdeane’s Tweet).

We will have a short post about the guidance up here later. In the meantime, what are your thoughts?

Retweet at your peril

On Wednesday night, the DPP spoke at the LSE on the issue of social media. This follows a series of ‘roundtables’ at which he invited some prominent legal tweeters, (with some notable absences), to proffer their thoughts on how the law can best deal with the issue of prosecutions in cases involving social media.

Here is a list of questions/discussion topics which were presented to the attendees for consideration.

At the LSE, the DPP discussed social media prosecutions and stated that he understood the anxiety of the Twitter community in relation to free speech: “It is important and the criminal threshold must be high”.

Whilst there are many issues pertaining to offences committed through social media, it is the Communications Act 2003 s 127 which has of late been the really controversial talking point.

See here for the UK Human Rights Blog post on a conviction under the Act.

See here for Adam Wagner (of UK Human Rights Blog) being interviewed by Joshua Rozenberg for BBC R4’s Law in Action, on this topic.

However, the bit that got every talking was this. Someone posed the question ‘Is it an offence to re-tweet something grossly offensive?’ to which the DPP replied, ‘you retweet, you commit an offence under the Act.’

This caused concern among Twitter users. Many state clearly in their ‘bios’ that a RT is not an endorsement, i.e. retweeting another’s tweet is not an indication that the view is shared or the content is endorsed. NEWSFLASH the DPP cares not for your disclaimer, and section 127 cares not for your intent. It states:

Improper use of public electronic communications network

(1) A person is guilty of an offence if he:

(a) sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character; or

(b) causes any such message or matter to be so sent.

There is no requirement that the message was sent with the intention of it being grossly offensive, nor that there is a defence if the message is sent with a view to the original sender being dealt with by the police – why would there be? The legislation has its roots in the Post Office (Amendment) Act 1935 and was voted on in its current form prior to Twitter and Facebook even existing.

So it appears that whether you are a newspaper tweeting links to the image of Mr Barry Thew’s t-shirt (see here for a summary of his case), a fan retweeting a grossly offensive joke tweeted by your favourite comedian, or simply a do-gooder retweeting a grossly offensive tweet to enable the authorities to take appropriate action prior to the user removing the tweet, you fall foul of the Act.

Where then, does that leave you? Well, quite simply, in the collective lap of the CPS. Flip a coin…because who knows whether the charging decision will be the sensible one (Paul Chambers, Matthew Woods spring to mind). I think the DPP should be commended on what he is trying to do with social media and the law, but relying on prosecutorial discretion is not the way forward.

Can we not simply have a law which criminalises that which ought to be criminal and leaves untouched that which ought to be untouched?