Twitter joke trial stalemate reveals laughable gap in British justice

by Adam Banks on May 28, 2012

UPDATE: Paul Chambers’ solicitor, David Allen Green, has confirmed that the appeal has been scheduled for a new hearing on 27 June before the Lord Chief Justice, giving hope that the matter will finally be settled.

The appeal of Paul Chambers, who was convicted and fined in 2010 for committing an offence under s127 of the Communications Act 2003 after joking with a woman he was due to meet about blowing up an airport, will be heard afresh by three new judges after two judges in the Divisional Court of the High Court failed to agree on a decision. The appeal was heard on 8 February 2012, after Chambers had already spent 18 months and tens of thousands of pounds, raised by well-wishers and a celebrity benefit gig, trying to overturn his conviction, which resulted in the loss of his job. He will now have to wait a further unspecified period before the new panel hears the appeal again and attempts to reach a decision.

Stephen Fry, Graham Linehan (writer of Father Ted and The IT Crowd), Al Murray (‘The Pub Landlord’) and legal blogger David Allen Green, who took on Chambers’ case after the original trial, have been among many prominent critics of the decisions of the CPS, which prosecuted Chambers, and of the lower court judges who handed down and then upheld the conviction. The original tweet was not addressed to anyone connected with the airport or the security services, and was only accidentally seen by a member of security staff at Robin Hood Doncaster Sheffield Airport, from which Chambers was planning to fly to Northern Ireland when snow caused delays. The CPS established that it did not constitute a bomb hoax.

Although the employee drew the message to the attention of police, he rated it a ‘non credible threat’, the lowest possible category. The police didn’t appear to take it seriously either, waiting several days before calling Chambers in for questioning. He explained immediately that it was a joke, as was arguably quite clear from the wording of the original tweet, which is worth repeating verbatim since it’s often abbreviated or misquoted in press reports and comments:

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!!

The tweet, which came amid a flurry of banter between Chambers and a Northern Ireland woman he’d met online, was posted publicly under Chambers’ own account, in his own name and showing his photo, which might have seemed an odd modus operandi for a terrorist. Chambers had no previous convictions or any connection with criminal activity. Despite all this, the CPS chose to charge him with sending a “menacing” communication.

District judge Jonathan Bennett, handing down what Allen Green called ‘a disgraceful and illiberal judgment‘, bizarrely concluded:

I have to consider the final part of the ‘tweet’ – ‘otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high’. The context is we live in a society where there are huge security concerns particularly in relation to airports and air travel. I do not need to repeat the very real incidents there have been in the UK in recent years let alone worldwide. With that background I can have no doubt that the remark posted by the defendant is menacing.

Rejecting a subsequent appeal, judge Jacqueline Davies, sitting with two magistrates, repeated that the tweet was ‘clearly menacing’ and said: ‘We find it impossible to accept that anyone living in this country, in the current climate of terrorist threats, would not be aware of the consequences of their actions in making such a statement’. No specific evidence had been submitted, however, to show that Chambers was aware of or could reasonably have anticipated any such consequences.

In a campaign under the banner ‘I Am Spartacus’, over 4,000 concerned Twitter users repeated Chambers’ original tweet to demonstrate that there was no menacing effect and it was the kind of casual remark anyone might have made. No charges resulted and no-one has since been charged with a s127 offence for a tweet that did not credibly threaten violence against a person.

Presenting Chambers’ High Court appeal in February of this year, Ben Emmerson QC for the defence told the court: ‘One has to inject common sense to avoid the law ending up looking silly.’ Sadly, Lord Justice Gross and Mr Justice Irwin appear to have failed between them to come up with sufficient common sense to dismiss the whole business. A split divisional court is believed to have occurred only twice since the turn of the century.

The news isn’t all bad, however. Chambers and his date are now engaged and, according to apparently serious tweets, plan to move to Corby – a handy half-hour drive from Robin Hood Airport, which at the time of writing remains intact.

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  • Anonymous

    They could save loads of time by just going “It was obviously a joke and requires no further attention”

    Who they trying to keep happy with this? Advocates of a conviction for this are surely very few and very far between.

  • Julian Nicholls

    I resent my taxes being wasted in this profligate manner.

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