The situation caused by the COVID-19 continues to generate all sorts of legal consequences. One of the latest angles to be given wide publicity is the rising number of incidents involving assaults carried out by individuals who claim to be infected with the virus.
Several innocent members of the public – whether they be private individuals, shop workers, Police officers or National Health Service staff – have experienced confrontations with extremely anti-social individuals who have threatened to cough over them or spit on them.
One such incident occurred at the weekend, which was reported by BBC Scotland (see below):
Assault in Scotland is generally treated as a common law offence. It would involve a physical attack (or an attempted attack) on another person. Threats issued by a person to a victim would also constitute an assault if these put the victim into a state of fear and alarm.
In relation to the above incident, the clear intention of the teenager (even if he was completely healthy) was to put the healthcare worker into a state of fear and alarm. Hopefully, the victim will remain completely healthy and free of viral symptoms.
This is not, however, the point: her attacker clearly had the mens rea (the guilty mind) and he followed this through with the actus reus (the wrongful act). If there are witnesses and other evidence which can corroborate the incident, then the Police may have grounds to charge her attacker with assault.
If the criminal investigation proceeds to this stage, it will then be for the Procurator Fiscal (the local prosecutor) to determine whether there is enough evidence to initiate criminal proceedings against the accused.
The Lord Advocate, James Wolfe QC has issued a statement in relation to assaults on key workers:
“The Crown has a range of responses available to tackle unacceptable criminal conduct that may arise during the coronavirus pandemic. Any person who deliberately endangers life, or spreads fear and alarm by pretending to do so, will be dealt with robustly. It is difficult to imagine a more compelling case for prosecution in the public interest.”
Although assault is generally considered to be a common law offence, we should be mindful of the provisions of Section 90 of the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012 which creates the statutory offence of assaulting or impeding the Police in the discharge of their duties. If an accused is successfully convicted of an offence in terms of Section 90, they may face a maximum prison sentence of 12 months and/or the imposition of a fine.
In England and Wales, a different approach is taken to assault: it is regarded as a statutory offence in terms of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861.
The Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales has stated that attacks on emergency workers may result in a prison sentence of two years being imposed should the accused (the defendant) be found guilty of such an assault (as per Section 38 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861).
Links to stories on the Sky News website about the rise of this type of criminal offence can be found below:
In the United States of America, incidents such as the above have more serious consequences: COVID-19 is classified as a ‘biological agent’. Attempts to spread or threats to spread the virus are treated as a terrorist offence (see below):
Our non-Scottish readers may have difficulty with ‘thole’ – actually to thole, a verb. It means to be able to endure something or someone. Scots will commonly say that they can’t thole a person , meaning that they dislike or have very little time for an individual. I understand that people in in the North of England also use this word.
Assize is probably a word that some lawyers might be familiar with: it means a trial diet (sitting) of a criminal court. Perhaps the best example of the word coming into popular use was the term ‘the Bloody Assizes’ presided over by the notorious, English hanging judge, Lord Chief Justice George Jeffreys in 1685. These events were, of course, a long time ago and followed the Duke of Monmouth’s ill fated rebellion against his uncle, King James VII of Scotland (James II of England, Ireland and Wales).
Enough of history for now …
In the legal context, if we take the two words together and put them into the following sentence: he has tholed his assize, it means that someone has endured prosecution and trial and has been vindicated or acquitted.
This is precisely what happened today at Edinburgh’s High Court of Justiciary (Scotland’s Supreme criminal court of trial) when the former First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond was acquitted of 13 charges that he had sexually assaulted 9 women. The jury found him not guilty of 12 charges and returned a not proven verdict for the remaining charge. Mr Salmond was tried on indictment under solemn procedure in the High Court of Justiciary. Solemn or jury trials are reserved for more serious types of crime and they take place in either the Sheriff Court or the High Court of Justiciary.
It is worth pointing out to our non-Scottish readership that, in Scottish criminal trials, we have 3 possible verdicts, namely:
Not guilty and not proven are both acquittal verdicts, with the not proven verdict being a peculiarly Scottish development. I noted that the BBC referred to this verdict as “highly controversial”. It’s usefulness is still debated to this day, but it is a common outcome of many trials.
It was the jury of 13 – originally 15 – men and women that acquitted Mr Salmond. The jury in a criminal trial is said to be the ‘Master of the facts’, whereas the judge is said to be ‘Master of law’. It is, therefore, the task of the jury to weigh up the evidence presented at trial and come to its verdict.
At this point, I should also remind our readers that it is not simply a case of prosecution and defence presenting their respective cases at the trial. This would be to ignore the subtleties at play: the prosecutor (in the Salmond case: Mr Alex Prentice QC) has to operate under the onus or burden of having toprove the allegations against the accused. All the defence has to do is to deny the allegations. We operate in a system of criminal justice which emphasises the presumption of innocence.
I have been asked by several people over the last few weeks to predict the outcome of the Salmond trial. I have responded in the following way: I do not know Mr Salmond; and I have never met him or his accusers (I do not know these individuals either), so how can I give you a reasoned opinion?
Ah, but my questioners persist: surely, you have been following accounts of the trial via the media? To which I respond, not really …
Now the media does a very important job, but it can only provide us with a subjective view of things. Journalists will prioritise what they think are significant factors – no matter how impartial they think that they are being. Trial by media is never a good thing; it is to the jury alone that we entrust the task of determining the innocence or guilt of the accused.
We shall never know the precise motivations behind the jury’s decision today. Section 8 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 makes it a criminal offence for jurors to reveal the reasons for their decisions (an interesting book about a jury trial in England, but not about the jurors’ deliberations, is The Juryman’s Tale by Trevor Grove (Bloomsbury: 2000).
It may be trite to say this, but there are no such things as open and shut cases. Things (the evidence) can and do sound very different in the surroundings of a court room. I have seen overly confident prosecutors come swiftly undone when the defence emphasises a flaw in the prosecution’s arguments. Here comes the nagging doubt I think; the chink in the armour; the reasonable doubt which heralds an acquittal verdict. Nothing is ever certain.
Whatever your views or feelings about Alex Salmond Esquire, this is exactly what happened today: the jury weighed up the prosecution’s case, found it deficient (in that it did not meet the criminal standard of proof) and acquitted the accused.
A link to an article about the Salmond verdict on the BBC website can be found below:
Scotland’s former first minister is found not guilty on 12 charges, while another allegation is found not proven.
You’re a 22 year old man living with your mother in a terraced house in Coventry. You have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder since childhood. You have no criminal convictions. So far, completely unremarkable.
You get yourself into serious trouble with the law. You have been purchasing quantities of chemicals online for the purpose of converting these into Hexamethylene Triperoxide Diamine (“HMTD”), which is a high explosive compound and, it should go without saying, very dangerous.
In these days of heightened awareness of terrorism and the threat from these types of activities, your behaviour is not very sensible. It is perfectly understandable that you might be viewed as a serious threat to national security – as well as a more immediate threat to the safety of your neighbours (you have been causing small explosions in your back garden).
Following a search of your home by Police (who are in possession of a warrant), you are charged under Section 4(1) of the Explosive Substances Act 1883 (legislation which also applies in Scotland).
Section 4(1) states as follows:
“Any person who makes or knowingly has in his possession or under his control any explosive substance, under such circumstances as to give rise to a reasonable suspicion that he is not making it or does not have it in his possession or under his control for a lawful object, shall, unless he can show that he made it or had it in his possession or under his control for a lawful object, be guilty of an offence …”
You claim you’re not a terrorist, but why on earth would someone like you want to manufacture a high explosive compound such as HMTD? The potential consequences for you are severe if convicted: a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
By the way, it gets worse, because you are also charged under Section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000 e.g. because you collect or make a record “of information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.”
This is exactly what happened to Chez Copeland, who at one point wished to join the Armed Forces, but due to his disability was prevented from choosing such a career.
Let’s go back to Section 4(1) of the Explosives Substances Act 1883 and examine its wording: is there any possible defence for your actions?
Perhaps. The suspect must be able to show that he has the substance in his possession or under his control for a “lawful object”.
So, the key question here is why would this young man want to have explosive materials in his possession? We’re asking a question about his mindset: does he have the necessary mens rea (guilty mind) to commit a crime? We know that the actus reus (the wrongful act) is present, but this is not a strict liability crime – it is essential for the prosecution to establish what was the intention of the accused.
In his defence, the accused provides us with some background. He was hugely influenced by the Oscar winning film The Hurt Locker (directed by Kathryn Bigelow) which is about an American bomb disposal unit operating in Iraq. Ever since seeing the film, the accused has been fascinated about the science behind explosives and bomb making. He indulges in role-playing and develops an obsessive interest in this area.
Far from being involved in terrorist or criminal activities, the behaviour of our accused is firmly grounded in good old fashioned (and honest) scientific enquiry. He is, therefore, following the well trodden path of scientific discovery and experimentation.
Preparatory Hearing at the Crown Court
Sadly, for our accused, a preparatory hearing at Birmingham Crown Court does not bode well. His Honour Judge Mark Wall QC is not minded to permit the defence that the HTMD was in the possession or under the control of the accused for a “lawful object”.
Our accused appeals to the English Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) where his proposed defence is also rejected. The Appeal Court judges (Sir Brian Leveson P, Elisabeth Laing and Whipple JJ), like Judge Wall QC, place huge significance on an earlier precedent – R v Riding  EWCA Crim 892. Let us proceed further …
The Riding precedent
In Riding, the accused had made a pipe bomb because, as he stated in his evidence: “I was curious and just experimenting.” As the Court of Appeal noted in this case:
“The judge ruled that the reason that the defendant gave, that is to say curiosity whether he could construct it or not, was not capable of amounting to a lawful object and he so directed the jury.”
According to the Court of Appeal, this was the correct approach taken by the judge in the Crown Court. The defendant (Riding) was therefore guilty of an offence:
“The short point in the case is whether it is correct that a lawful object is simply the absence of criminal purpose. We are satisfied that that is not what the Act says. The Act requires that if you are found in possession or have made an explosive substance in circumstances in which there is a reasonable suspicion that there is no lawful object, it is an offence unless there was in fact some affirmative object which was lawful. That is, as it seems to us, an entirely unsurprising provision for a statute to make, given the enormous danger of explosive substances generally.”
Appeal to the UK Supreme Court
It would appear, therefore, that Chez Copeland’s prospects of avoiding a conviction and possible prison sentence were pretty bleak – if you follow the logic of the Riding precedent.
There was one chink of light for our accused, Mr Copeland, an appeal to the UK Supreme Court (and leave was duly granted by the Court of Appeal).
Lord Sales (delivering the majority opinion of the Court – Lords Lloyd-Jones and Hamblen dissenting) held that Copeland was permitted to use the defence that his possession or control of the explosive substance was for a “lawful object”.
His Lordship then went on to detail the history of legislation which had regulated the personnel possession of gunpowder (and later explosives) by an individual. Significantly, he noted that:
“In fact, there is a long and well-established tradition of individuals pursuing self- education via private experimentation in a range of fields, including with chemicals and explosives.”
Interestingly, the Explosives Substances Act 1875 (predecessor of the Explosive Substances 1883 Act) acknowledged such legitimate purposes. The 1883 Act had been passed hastily to reassure a British public terrified of the actions of militant Irish Republicans.
The new Act was primarily geared towards the creation of additional criminal offences and, from my interpretation of Lord Sales’ historical summary, it’s hard to infer that the Westminster Parliament was breaking with long established tradition and thus making the mere possession of explosive material a criminal offence. If Parliament had intended this, it would have done so.
The practical regulation of the use and storing of explosives is currently addressed by the Explosives Regulations 2014 and, the Explanatory Memorandum which accompanies these, clearly acknowledge that private individuals may lawfully manufacture or be in possession of explosive substances for their own personal use. That said, individuals who are manufacturing or storing explosive materials must be aware of the relevant guidelines which are presently in force.
Critically, Lord Sales was of the view that experimentation and self-education (which includes satisfying an individual’s curiosity) are lawful objects. This is well within the ordinary and every day meaning of the words “lawful object” in the 1883 Act. A defendant (such as Chez Copeland) will, therefore, be entitled to present this defence at trial, but of course a jury will have to weigh up the evidence presented and arrive at its own conclusions.
Interestingly, Lord Sales observed that in R vRiding , the Court of Appeal had correctly dismissed the defendant’s appeal on the facts – the defendant (Riding) did not have a lawful object in proceeding to build a pipe bomb. Where the Court of Appeal had fallen into error in Riding, was to approach the remark that “mere curiosity simply could not be a lawful object in the making of a lethal pipe bomb” as effectively a “proposition of law” rather than treating this as a purely factual statement.
The two dissenting Justices – Lords Lloyd-Jones and Hamblen – were strongly in agreement with Judge Wall (in the Crown Court) and the Court of Appeal:
“Such detonations involve an obvious risk of causing injury and damage to property and causing a public nuisance. For such experimentation to be capable of being lawful it would be necessary to particularise how it was to be carried out so as to avoid any such risk or how it would otherwise be lawful.”
Their Lordships went on to say:
“We consider that the vague and generalised statements referring to personal experimentation and private education, whether considered individually or taken together, fail to provide sufficient particularity of how these claimed objects were to be carried out lawfully.”
That said, the views of Lords Lloyd-Jones and Hamblen did not prevail and Chez Copeland’s appeal was permitted to proceed.
The Explosive Susbtances Act 1883 and the Explosives Regulations 2014 and, the Explanatory Memorandum clearly acknowledges that private individuals may lawfully manufacture or be in possession of explosive substances for their own personal use.
In R v Copeland , the UK Supreme Court has now ruled that experimentation and self-education (which includes satisfying an individual’s curiosity) are lawful objects. This is well within the ordinary and every day meaning of the words “lawful object” in the 1883 Act.
That said, individuals who are manufacturing or storing explosive materials must be aware of the relevant guidelines which are presently in force which impose upon them a heavy duty of responsibility to take care for the safety of other people and their property.
A defendant (such as Chez Copeland) will, therefore, be entitled to present the defence in Section 4(1) of the 1883 Act at a trial that explosive substances were in his possession or under his control for a “lawful object”. A jury will, of course, have to weigh up the evidence presented and arrive at its own conclusions on the facts.
Links to the Court of Appeal’s decision in R v Riding  and the UK Supreme Court’s decision in R v Copeland  respectively can be found below:
As someone who works more in the civil rather than the criminal legal tradition, I tend to focus more on the outcome of obtaining damages or compensation for the victim of an industrial or work-place accident.
It’s simply a matter of horses for courses i.e. you stick to what you know or what you’re trained to do. Admittedly, most of the victims of industrial accidents that I have represented are perhaps more focused on obtaining compensation for their injuries – especially if these are life changing. Any criminal liability that the employer may have is purely incidental i.e. something of a side issue. Then again, I suppose you could say that about most civil actions where the criminality of the pursuer remains firmly in the background (think dangerous and careless driving incidents).
The victim of a work-place delict (or tort) may get some satisfaction from their employer or its officers and managers appearing in the dock at a subsequent criminal trial, but this is unlikely to be satisfying in the long term. It will not allow them to get their lives back on track or to move on; payment of compensation is perhaps a more satisfactory conclusion to things. I make that last statement fully in the knowledge that no amount of money can truly give victims back what they have lost.
Yet, every so often, I come across a story or an incident which underlines the importance of criminal law regarding industrial or work-place accidents.
In 2015, one such incident occurred onboard Aquarius, a fishing trawler which operated out of the North East Scottish fishing port of Banff. Serious failings in the operation of the vessel led to the death of a crewman. The victim, 47 year old, Annang Neurtey from Ghana, was swept overboard: his body has never been recovered – adding immensely to the grief of his family.
Anyone who has read Sebastian Junger’s 1997 novel, The Perfect Storm (or viewed the film adaptation of 2000) will be readily familiar with the dangers that fishing folk face at sea. That said, the tragedy which befell Annang Neurtey was entirely avoidable. If the skipper of the Aquarius had properly supervised the crew and followed basic safety procedures, the accident would not have occurred.
Following Mr Neurtey’s death, MB Aquarius Ltd of Buckie, the company which owned and operated the vessel, was investigated by Police Scotland and the Marine and Coastguard Agency. The conclusions reached by investigators were that basic risk assessments had not been properly carried out and that the employer had failed to put a safe system of working in place.
At a subsequent criminal prosecution against Mr Neurtey’s employer for health and safety breaches at Aberdeen Sheriff Court, the company pleaded guilty to breaches of marine safety laws, namely, Regulation 5(1) of the Merchant Shipping and Fishing Vessels (Health and Safety at Work) Regulations 1997 and Sections 85 and 86 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995.
A fine of £50,000 was imposed on the employer – it would have been £75,000 had an early plea of guilty not been entered by the company.
Mr Neurtey’s family will doubtless be contemplating a civil action for recovery of damages – unless of course his employer does the decent thing and quickly settles such a claim.
A link to the Marine and Coastguard Agency’s Report of its findings concerning Mr Neurtey’s death can be found below:
Have concerns about health and safety gone mad? The former British Prime Minister, David Cameron certainly thought so when his Coalition Government (2010-15) introduced the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 (in particular, Section 69 of the said legislation) which removed the right to bring a civil claim for breaches of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.
It does not mean that employees can no longer bring a civil claim if an employer breaches its duty of care, but significantly claimants will no longer benefit from the presumption of strict liability previously imposed on organisations. Since this reform, it will be essential for claimants to prove negligence on the part of their employers for breaches of health and safety.
We would, however, do well to remember our history: concerns about health and safety were often ignored in the not so distant past.
The phrase “dark satanic mills” comes from the poem, And did those feet in ancient time by William Blake. The phrase has been interpreted as a searing indictment of the wickedness and exploitative practices of 19th Century British industrialists who most certainly put profit before people. This is why rare individuals such as the Welsh born industrialist, Robert Owen and his New Lanark Mills we’re regarded as truly radical and progressive employers.
The words of Blake’s poem were later put to music by the composer, Hubert Parry, and is better known as Jerusalem – an alternative English National Anthem for many because of its rallying call for social justice for the poor and the oppressed.
Over time, admittedly, the UK Parliament did intervene by bringing in legislation to curb some of the frankly dangerous and disreputable practices which had been tolerated in British factories, shipyards and mines. With the industrial revolution, Britain did indeed become the ‘workshop of the world’, but this accolade disguised the terrible human cost which could be measured in countless deaths, terrible injuries and overwhelmingly misery.
Some months ago, I saw a photograph by Bill Brandt in The Independent’s Saturday Magazine which documented life in an East Durham mining community. I was pretty shocked by what I saw: the houses of the miners had no windows. Think of it: these workers spent their days down the pit in almost total darkness. More shocking, was the fact that Brandt had taken the photograph as recently as 1937.
Yet surely, the bad old days are long gone? The British work-place has become a much safer place? Undoubtedly, as we shall see, employers have become much more aware of their responsibilities to their employees and workers in respect of the issue of health and safety.
That said, if you look at the info graphic produced below from the UK Health and Safety Executive, poor conditions and practices in British work-places still result in unacceptably high levels of injuries and illness – in 2019!
Recently, Amazon, the global internet retailer, received very unwelcome media attention about the number of industrial injuries which have occurred in its UK premises. It’s probably fair to say that Amazon UK does not enjoy a particularly good reputation amongst trade unions regarding its employment practices and the recent media stories only compound this state of affairs.
Links to stories about Amazon UK on Sky News and Channel 4 News can be found below:
It is worth noting that the employer’s common law duties which aim to protect the health and safety of employees establishes a regime of civil liability. In other words, should the employer breach these duties, he will most likely face a civil action by the injured employee who will be attempting to recover compensation.
The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, on the other hand, makes an employers criminally liable if they fail to take reasonably practicable steps to protect the health and safety of their employees. An employer will, therefore, face penalties in a criminal court for breaches of the Act.
The Health and Safety (Offences) Act 2008
The provisions of this Act came into force on 16 January 2009 and apply to offences committed after this date by employers. Scottish criminal courts will now have the power to impose maximum fines of £20,000 on employers who breach health and safety rules. In the most serious cases where health and safety rules have been breached or ignored, the courts may also have the right to imprison those responsible.
The Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010
Sections 65-68 of the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010 should make it easier for organisations to face prosecution in Scotland in relation to allegations of criminal wrongdoing. According to Section 65, the term “organisation” applies to any of the following bodies:
a body corporate;
an unincorporated association;
a body of trustees;
a government department;
a part of the Scottish Administration;
any other entity which is not an individual
Such proceedings against organisations may be on indictment (Section 66) or on complaint (Section 67).
For a long time, it has been argued that an organisational culture which promotes lax practices or downright dangerous behaviour can lead to the commission of criminal offences. This an attempt to make organisations more accountable under the criminal law for conduct which causes harm to members of the public.
Overall, this means that an employer could face both a criminal action and a civil action for damages where he has neglected to obey the criminal law and the common law in respect of the employee’s health and safety.
If only we need reminding that health and safety remains a major issue in the work-place, we need only look to a story from Scotland which appeared in national media outlets just this week.
Workers at the Mossmorran and Ineos chemical plants took unauthorised industrial action (wildcat strikes) which was motivated by serious concerns about the lack of health and safety in the work-place. Happily, the employers seem to be listening to the concerns and the employees are now back at work.
Failure by employers to take health and safety issues seriously can leave themselves open to both civil and criminal liability. During Britain’s Industrial Revolution (from the 18th to the early 20th Centuries), it’s true to say that there was no such thing as a culture of health and safety in the work-place. Industrialists like Robert Owen were remarkable because they broke with the paradigm of British industrial practice i.e. workers were resources to be used up and tossed aside when no longer needed.
The growth of the trade union movement and the emergence of the British Labour Party (itself a creation of the union movement) led to pressure for change and tangible improvements were made to working practices. Despite these advances, cases such as the death of Annang Neurtey and the figures from the Health and Safety Executive surely caution us against complacency.
Links to reports on the BBC Scotland website about the industrial action can be found below:
Union GMB said the workers had “continuously raised their concerns about conditions and safety on-site”.