For an area of law with such serious consequences for members of the public, the public would be forgiven for expecting the criminal law to be clearly understandable and easily accessible; often it is not. The public rely on Parliament, legal practitioners and the police to tell them what the law is. Statements issued by those within the professions therefore need to be as clear and unambiguous as they can be.
Following the horrific murder of James Foley, the Metropolitan Police Service issued a statement to the media stating:
The MPS Counter Terrorism Command (SO15) is investigating the contents of the Video that was posted online in relation to the alleged murder of James Foley.
We would like to remind the public that viewing, downloading or disseminating extremist material within the UK may constitute an offence under terrorism legislation.
Following this statement, David Allen Green, a lawyer and legal commentator, contacted the Metropolitan Police Service. He asked them to clarify this statement; he wanted to know under which piece of legislation viewing extremist material was a criminal offence. In short, the Metropolitan Police Service didn’t know. Mr Green was directed to two sections of the Terrorism Act 2006, neither of which makes viewing extremist material an offence. They informed him that it may be an offence and that it was a matter of interpretation. Mr Green detailed his telephone conversation with the Press Office in an article for the FT and tweeted details of his conversation with them.
Whilst many may consider viewing the video released by Mr Foley’s executioners to be unnecessary or distasteful, it is not a crime to do so. The police have an obligation to ensure that statements of law are clear; a failure to do so is misleading and undermines positive steps that forces are taking to engage their communities with the law.
The criminal law is notoriously complex and constantly evolving. Statistics published by the Ministry of Justice on 17 December 2012 stated that ‘in the 12 months ending May 2012 new criminal offences were contained in 52 pieces of legislation … From the 52 pieces of legislation 292 new criminal offences were created…’.
Figures for the past twelve months have not yet been released. However, in the past month alone, legislation in relation to data retention has been rushed through Parliament in 24 hours, Boris Johnson has described reversing the burden of proof as a minor legal change and politicians have made repeated statements about the possibility of withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights. In such a climate, it is essential that all statements of law are accurate, how else can the public be expected to keep up.