The prosecution and conviction of Paul Chambers for his exasperated but light-hearted tweet is an absurdity.
It was not meant to be menacing, and it was not taken to be menacing by anyone who saw it. But the administrative process which started with an off-duty airport employee coming across it whilst searching for something else has led to to the horror of a blameless young man gaining a criminal record and losing two jobs.
When Paul was originally charged, the CPS turned up to court and wrongly told the judge and the defence that the provision which they were using – section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 – was a strict liability offence. Paul’s then defence lawyer, not in a position to know better in respect of this obscure provision (not even included in Archbold), advised his client to plead guilty.
It was only when press reports of the plea emerged that it became clear to those of us who work in media and commuincations law that a fundametal error had occured. Following my previous Bad Law post, Paul changed his plea. He was still convicted – the judge somehow found intent – and his appeal is now part heard at Doncaster Crown Court, adjourned to a date to be decided.
As with the Simon Singh case, the prosecution of Paul Chambers has become a popular cause for free speech, with supporters as varied as Nick Cohen and Stephen Fry.
However, it is the response of lawyers which has (for me) been the most heartening.
After I was asked to co-ordinate the defence (which my firm is enabling me to do pro bono), I was able to use the donations from well wishers to secure the services of Stephen Ferguson of 2 Bedford Row, one of the UK’s leading specialist defence barristers. Although the donations are not substantial, Stephen has committed extensive time to this case.
Several City communciations and media lawyers have also provided the defence with pro bono expert assistance, most notably Andrew Sharpe at Charles Russell (himself a leading Twitterer), and also Tom Cassels at Baker & McKenzie and Ted Mercer at Edwin Coe. Libel lawyers and free speech campaigners Robert Dougans of Bryan Cave and Joanne Cash of One Brick Court are also helping the defence behind the scenes, including as trustees of the support fund.
All this support is welcome – good people are mobilised by evident injustices. But it should be unnecessary. The prosecution of Paul Chambers is really one which should never have been brought. A great deal of effort is now being expended in trying to bring it to a satisfactory close. If this appeal is unsuccessful, the case will probably proceed to the High Court and the Court of Appeal. If so, the hard legal work will continue.
City lawyers often get a bad press; but in the case of Paul Chambers and the “Twitter Joke Trial” City lawyers are responding wonderfully to try and correct an outrageous wrong.
David Allen Green is Head of Media at Preiskel & Co. He was nominated for the George Orwell Prize for political blogging in 2010 and now regularly blogs at Jack of Kent and the New Statesman.