August 10, 2012 8.00 am This story is over 135 months old

Lincoln Lawyer: Was it Twitter or the legal system on trial?

Watch your tweets: Lincoln Lawyer goes through the lack of common sense when one Twitter user was prosecuted for a rather silly joke.

— Tony Freitas is the Head of the Criminal Law Department at McKinnells Solicitors in Lincoln.

In May 2010, Paul Chambers, then living in Doncaster, tweeted about the local airport, Robin Hood, after it had been closed following heavy snow in January 2010. His tweet was “Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your s**t together otherwise I am going to blow the airport sky high!”

While clearly not in the best possible taste, Chambers only intended this to be a joke. Not everyone shared his sense of humour, particularly the Crown Prosecution Service.

Chambers had about 600 followers on Twitter. No one other than them saw the message up for five days. Then, a duty manager at the airport, during a speculative search, picked it up. As he was required to do, he passed it on to his boss and sensibly his boss categorized it as a non-credible threat. That was about the last time that anyone showed any sense for the next two years.

The airport procedures required the matter be reported to the police. Two days later, South Yorkshire Police arrested Chambers at work. He didn’t deny sending the tweet, but said that it was a joke intended only for his friends to see.

The police accepted this in their report to the CPS. Yet, despite this, Chambers was then charged with sending a menacing electronic communication under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, an Act, incidentally, which pre dates Twitter by four years.

To prove the case, the prosecution had to establish that an ordinary person seeing the tweet would be alarmed. Despite the prosecution not calling any alarmed ordinary people, Chambers was convicted at the local magistrates court. He was fined £385 with £600 costs. He appealed to the Crown Court, where his conviction was upheld in November 2010. The Crown Court judge found that his tweet was “clearly menacing”.

Chambers took his appeal further, supported by Stephen Fry and Twitter itself. His defence QC pointed out that terrorists don’t send messages giving a week’s notice of their intentions, nor do they do so with their identity open and unconcealed. It was not sent in the context of terrorism and the court should not have found that it did.

Chamber’s case came before the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge. While still a practicing barrister before becoming a judge, Igor Judge appeared for many years at Lincoln Crown Court. He earned a formidable reputation as a lawyer, but also as a very grounded and humane person. He made short shrift of the appeal when giving his recent judgment. He found that while Chambers may have been rather stupid, he should not have been convicted of the offence. He said people reading the tweet would brush it aside as a silly joke, or a joke in bad taste or empty and bombastic banter, so it would be a contradiction in terms to describer it as a menacing message.

The case, following on from John Terry’s acquittal a few weeks ago on a charge of making racist comments, does raise issues about the CPS decision-making. Large sums of public money will have been spent in prosecuting Chambers, money that could have been saved if the person making that decision had remembered we don’t start prosecuting people for being a bit stupid.

Tony is the Head of the Criminal Law Department, after initially joining McKinnells in May 2005. He rather foolishly left the firm in mid 2010, before returning in September 2011 in his current role.