During my three decades as a London cop, there were few instances when new legislation made me smile. For the most part, it was created willy-nilly by politicians desperate for the popular vote and 99% of new laws turned out to be ill-considered and occasionally unworkable. At times there was so much knee-jerking in Parliament that you'd be forgiven thinking that they were performing the hokey-cokey. Take 'driving while using a mobile phone' as an example. Perfectly good legislation existed already. Police had powers to report someone for driving without due care and attention and/or dangerous driving. So why single out mobile phones? We now have the situation where, if you're crawling along in a car in a traffic jam at 2mph, you can't phone home and say that you're late because, just by using the phone, you commit the offence. Meanwhile, the guy who's reading a map on his steering wheel, or the woman applying her make-up in the rear view mirror or the couple who are having a blazing row could only be prosecuted if you could prove that they were a danger to others or not controlling their car. Oh, and when the law was brought in, police officers wondered whether they'd be committing the offence because the radios we had at the time had to be held to the ear, leaving one hand on the steering wheel. Utter madness. And don't get me started on the idiotic Dangerous Dogs Act ...
But one piece of new legislation did make me smile and it was called the Criminal Attempts Act. It came into force in 1981 and it plugged a major loophole in English law. Up until that time, attempted crime fell under the heading of 'common law' and test cases had created the situation that a person could not be prosecuted for attempting to commit a crime if the crime was impossible to commit. To give you an everyday example, a person who attempted to pick your pocket could not be charged with attempted theft if the pocket was empty. The crime had to be capable of being committed before you could be guilty of attempting it. The Criminal Attempts Act changed all that by, quite rightly, placing the onus upon the offender's intent rather than the possibility of their success.
The clever thing about the Criminal Attempts Act was that it created the offence of 'attempt' and could be applied alongside other legislation to anything from theft to burglary to sexual assault to embezzlement. It worked because the definition of 'attempt' meant a person doing an act which was 'more than merely preparatory to the commission of the offence'. So thinking about murdering a banker wasn't an offence, but sitting in the car outside his luxurious home with a crossbow might be. In law, attempting to commit a crime is all about intent and some degree of preparation.
So why then is a man currently at court going through a second appeal against a conviction for simply typing the words '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!!'? You can read all about the Paul Chambers 'Twitter Joke Trial' trial on hundreds of websites and blogs (including my own angry blog here) so I won't bore you with the details. However, I do wonder what kind of country we are turning into when a simple and clearly jokey comment on Twitter can result in an otherwise decent, law-abiding Brit getting himself a criminal record under anti-terrorism laws? Have we lost all common sense and proportion? Surely even the meanest of intelligences could see that this was a joke? And, even if there were any doubt, ten minutes of background checking and interview would have clearly shown that this was really not something worth bothering the judicial system with. To return to my original point, where's the intent? Paul Chambers isn't a terrorist; there were no 'preparatory' actions taken to blow up an airport. He isn't even an attempted terrorist. Did he cause alarm and distress? I very much doubt it and I've yet to hear any testimony from anyone who believed that their life was in any danger. Did he attempt to cause alarm and distress? I have yet to see any evidence of even the slightest intent.
The sheer ridiculousness of this trial and subsequent appeals is clearly demonstrated by the fact that 1000s of Twitter users have since re-typed his original tweet without repercussions. I've done it myself. I no more intend to cause harm and distress than he did, so why haven't the police knocked at my door? All Paul Chambers did was what I see people doing every day - venting their spleens. Just this week I've seen people 'threaten' to kill several celebrities on Twitter, I've read comments on YouTube videos where the owners of the videos are abused, told to die or invited to commit suicide (just look at the Rebecca Black 'Friday' episode). I've heard people express inflammatory opinions in pubs and shops. We all do it. And, for most of us, a slap on the wrist and a few words of caution would be more than enough to remind us that, sometimes, we can be unaware of the effects that our words have on others.
There are times when I am almost ashamed to have once been part of 'the system'. Paul Chambers may have been naive and ill-advised but was it really worth ruining the man's life to hammer that message home? Of course not.
I wish him every success with his appeal.