Face the consequences!

Photo by Tim Bennett on Unsplash

By Louise Aitken, Siobhan Donaghy, Kieran Flynn and Elisha Masini (Editor: SJ Crossan)

Introduction

Privacy is a human right and both the Scotland Act 1998 and the Human Rights Act 1998, implemented provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights (Article 8) directly into national. The employment contract, consequently, is not in any way exempt from human rights issues (see the judgement of the European Court of Human Rights in Bărbulescu v Romania 5 September 2017 (Application no. 61496/08). The European Union (EU) has also had a major influence on the development of privacy laws e.g. General Data Protection Regulations.

Privacy has become a major issue in recent years, particularly due to the rise of social media use. The increasing use of IT systems and the internet by organisations and their employees are key factors in the expansion of laws regarding privacy. In Bărbulescu, the employer had violated the employee’s rights to privacy in terms of Article 8 of the European Convention in the way that it had monitored the company’s email system. Privacy in the work-place is a major issue for both employers and employees. Some of the most important areas of law that govern privacy are to be found in the areas of human rights, data protection, and freedom of information.

It is very important to establish from the outset that employees do not have an absolute right to privacy and there may be situations within and outwith the work-place where the employer has a legitimate interest in the activities of their employees – especially if such behaviour could amount to gross misconduct.

Gross misconduct

Gross misconduct relates to serious behaviour on the part of the employee that is deemed so bad that it destroys any relationship or trust between the employer and the employee. Gross misconduct warrants instant dismissal without any notice or pay.

Section 94 of the Employments Rights Act 1996 states that an employee has the right not to be unfairly dismissed.

Section 95 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 states that an employment contract can be terminated by means of the company through purpose of the employee’s conduct. Such a dismissal or termination of contract should be viewed as a fair dismissal (Section 98: ERA 1996).

Acts or omissions by the employee which would be classified as misconduct, such as theft, alcohol or drug use, poor discipline, continually missing work without justification or poor performance are all potential exceptions to this right.

Sexting

Matt Simpson former officer in the Cumbria police force is one of many who have been caught out due to things such as inappropriate text messages. In 2020, PC Simpson was dismissed from the force after he was found to be having a secret, sexual relationship while on duty. It first came to light after the new partner of the female, with whom Simpson was involved, found text messages that had been sent to her. The new partner of Simpson’s lover then went to the police authorities with this information to make a formal complaint.

A hearing was held to establish if PC Simpson was guilty of any wrongdoing. The panel found that this was a dereliction of Simpson’s duties and he was guilty of gross misconduct – not only due to having this relationship during the time when he was meant to be working but also due to him using confidential police system to uncover information about the women purely because he was “curious”. As well as this Mr Simpson also visited the female around 20 times when on shift and had vital police equipment with him while visiting such as a body camera and a taser device. The fact that this whole affair had come to light via Simpson’s private text messages was neither here nor there: this was an aspect of Simpson’s private life in which his employers had a legitimate interest and he had been carrying out his romantic activities during his employment.

A link to the story on the BBC website can be found below:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cumbria-51136711

In PC Simpson’s case, he clearly performed his duties inadequately and was guilty of very poor discipline. He was aware of the consequences of his actions. By involving himself with the female, he was making himself unavailable at times such as an emergency. Dereliction of duty is defined as the failure to fulfil one’s obligations. Here, PC Simpson clearly failed to do his job in a proper and professional manner and he could have been potentially negligent should an emergency have risen.

A further example of an employee committing acts of misconduct occurred in Adesokan v Sainsburys Supermarket Ltd [2017] EWCA Civ 22. Mr Adesokan was hired by Sainsbury’s as a Regional Operation Manager when he was in charge of ‘Talkback Procedure’, a key company policy which involved all members of staff giving information in confidence about their working environment and relationships with other colleagues. Mr Adesokan discovered that his HR manager had tried to manipulate the Talkback scores within his region by sending an email to five store managers telling them to seek feedback only from their most enthusiastic colleagues. Mr Adesokan asked the HR manager to “clarify what he meant with the store managers”, but the HR manager never responded. Mr Adesokan failed to follow this matter up and he was later dismissed by his employer for not taking action to confront the HR manager’s deliberate “manipulation” of the survey data.

A subsequent investigation into the matter led to Mr Adesokan’s eventual summary dismissal for “gross negligence on his part which is equivalent to gross misconduct”. Mr Adesokan brought a claim for breach of contract with regard to his notice period. The English High Court found that although he was not dishonest, his failure to take active steps to remedy the situation had damaged Sainsbury’s trust and confidence in him, which was sufficient to warrant the sanction imposed. The English Court of Appeal subsequently affirmed the decision of the High Court.

The Adekosan case was remarkably similar to that of PC Simpson where no other option was available to the employer as there was a complete loss of trust.

Activities outwith working hours

What individuals do with their own time is largely their choice (as long as they stay on the right side of the law). It is exceedingly difficult, however, for many people to do much these days without using social media or a mobile phone. Activities which used to be very much private are, consequently, at a much greater risk of public exposure in the virtual world in which we find ourselves living in 2020.

Employees can carry out many activities in private that may get them in trouble with their employers and have serious consequences for them. This might include, for instance, acts of gross misconduct committed in private which result in reputational damage to the employer. Consequently, the employer may have no alternative but to contemplate dismissal of the employee.

There is a lot of case law with regard to employees being dismissed from situations that have happened outside the workplace, an example would be the well-known case of X v Y [2004] EWCA Civ 662.

The facts of the case are as follows:

A charity employee who worked with young offenders committed an indecent act with another male in a public toilet at a motorway service station. He was put on the Sex Offenders’ Register as a result of receiving a police caution. The worker had not been straightforward with the Police when they asked questions about his job and, compounding this, he failed to inform his employer about the situation. Later, his employer decided to terminate his contract and the dismissal was once deemed to be fair. The reputational harm which the employer suffered due to the fact of the employee’s failure to be completely honest about what had happened was an enormous element of the decision to dismiss.

The English Court of Appeal was firmly of the view that the employee’S argument that he had a right to privacy (on grounds of his sexual orientation) in terms of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights was not applicable here as the indecent act was not of a personal nature due to the fact it had been carried out in a public toilet.

Doctor Beck

In some cases, however, it may be problematic to dismiss the ‘offending’ employee who may be involved in activities which come under the protected characteristics of the Equality Act 2010 e.g. philosophical beliefs or freedom of speech laws in terms of the European Convention on Human Rights.

One example of this was reported by The Independent regarding Dr Gunnar Beck, a German national and a candidate for the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a far right political party.

Dr Beck was employed at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), (part of the University of London) as a law lecturer. A number of his students and colleagues were enraged after discovering that he was an AfD candidate for a German seat in the European Parliamentary Elections in 2019.

Students and fellow lecturers organised protests arguing that Dr Beck should be fired from his position and for his employer to justify its part “in facilitating his far-right politics”. His colleagues from the School of Law stated that they vehemently oppose the AfD and its policies and wished to dissociate themselves completely from the people who support and advocate the Party.

The members of AfD are well-known for making provocative remarks concerning the actions taken by the Nazis. They targeted climate change activist, Greta Thunberg as part of their attempts to deny climate change.

Employees at the University of London went on to say that they were making their views public since they “recognise the importance of not being complicit in the normalisation of reactionary, right-wing populism.” A declaration by the students’ union at the university asked why Beck chose to work at a university “who hold and support so many of the identities he wants to see diminished”.

The Acting General Secretary of the University and College Union, Paul Cottrell stated that:

The AfD is an extreme right-wing, racist, anti-immigration party that has no place on UK campuses. We are shocked that a member of academic staff from SOAS could be involved with a party like this which stands for policies utterly incompatible with the values of diversity, tolerance and internationalism at the very heart of SOAS as an institution.

Dr Beck informed The Independent that his reason for supporting the AfD was because “there is no other Eurosceptic conservative party in Germany”.

He also went on to say that the AfD are “not a Nazi nor a fascist party.” Dr Beck stated that he was an advocate for freedom of speech and would defend anyone’s rights to it and any claims of him being a white supremacist, Islamophobe or fascist were outrageous.

Subsequently, Dr Beck was elected as 1 of 10 German MEPs from the AfD Party, but he was not dismissed from his position at the university.

A representative of SOAS stated:

We find the policies of the AfD on a range of matters to be abhorrent. They conflict with the fundamental values we hold as an institution. We recognise the anxiety caused to staff and students as a result of this situation.”

However, they added that: 

As an academic institution, we are committed to the rights of academic freedom of speech within the law, despite the painful choices to which it gives rise. We encourage members of our community to tackle these issues through robust debate.

This story regarding Dr Beck’s private affairs is an excellent illustration of employers not being able to fire an employee for acts committed in private due to protected characteristics (i.e. political beliefs) of the Equality Act 2010.

Both Dr Beck and the University of London have undoubtedly suffered reputational damage. Beck has suffered reputational damage in the eyes of his fellow lecturers and students because he is a member of AfD; and the university has suffered reputational damage for employing him in the first instance and subsequently for not dismissing him after the revelation about his political activities came to light.

That said, the University of London was in something of a difficult position because Dr Beck would probably have launched a legal challenge in terms of the Equality Act 2010. He would doubtless have protested that his political activities were a protected characteristic (philosophical beliefs). It would then have been up to an Employment Tribunal and, potentially, the higher courts to determine this issue. There was also the possibility that the university would have been accused of suppressing the right to freedom of speech.

A link to the story in The Independent can be found below:

https://edition.independent.co.uk/editions/uk.co.independent.issue.180519/data/8919156/index.html

Using social media outside work

As previously discussed, reputational damage is a big concern for organisations. Employers have also had valid fears about risks to their’ reputation as a result of work place misconduct that becomes widely publicised in e.g. the media. These fears have been increased with the surge in social media use today.

Employees are now far more likely to be found behaving in questionable ways or making offensive remarks online, which can attract a large audience or readership very quickly. Social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and WhatsApp (where responses can be instant) can represent something of a nightmare for an employer. It is important to remember that social media, if abused, can have a significant impact on relationships within the work place and could result in serious legal consequences.

Social media misuse by employees has become a frequent and complicated issue for employers to address. Although social media can be an extremely valuable resource for organisations, it can also pose a serious challenge to both employees and employers. Inappropriate social media misuse e.g. racial or sexual harassment could lead to employers being held vicariously liable for their workers’ misbehaviour.

When an employee misuses social media, firms need to know how to respond and handle it. Therefore, it is vital for companies to devise a clearly defined social media policy by which employees abide. It is important that employers notify workers about the nature of these policies and the potential ramifications of any violations.

So, when employers want to act against employees who make offensive remarks, such disciplinary action should come as no surprise. Such remarks can cause embarrassment, at best. At worst can hurt a firm’s reputation and lose them customers. Even if the remarks were posted years ago, they can still come back to haunt the employer and the employee.

The difficulty of dealing with social media use by employees for organisations can be seen in the case below.

Creighton v Together Housing Association Ltd ET/2400978/2016 Mr Creighton was dismissed for tweets which were made three years earlier. He had made negative remarks about colleagues and his boss on Twitter. The claim that Mr Creighton posted offensive remarks on Twitter resulted in his dismissal for gross misconduct even though he had worked with the organisation for 30 years.

Held: The Tribunal further clarified that the disciplinary policy of THA included “defaming the company or undermining its image by the use of social media” as an example of gross misconduct. The appeal panel rejected Mr Creighton’s appeal to the decision, arguing that he was aware or should have been fairly aware of the implications of his conduct as the disciplinary policy of the company. 

There are more and more cases of social media defamation – which emphasises a need for extremely specific social media rules and regulations in the terms and conditions of an employer. 

Employees are going to be very foolish if they assume it’s a credible argument to claim that social media comments happened outside working hours, were believed to be posted on an account that is supposed to be “secret” or posted years earlier, which Mr Creighton found out.

The importance of having a social media policy

As previously mentioned, establishing a solid social media policy is vital for an organisation. From the workers’ viewpoint, it is important that they are aware of the existence of such a policy, understand its substance and also recognise any potential consequences for failing to follow its rules.

Employers are also urged to review and update social media policies on a routine basis. New platforms and technology continue to be developed at a quick pace today and to maintain the knowledge of social media is simply made part of induction and training methods.

It is extremely necessary for an employer to make clear to its employees the kind of conduct which may justify dismissal. Usually, this may be done via a section in the employee handbook which addresses the consequences of misconduct in the workplace.

Additionally, an acceptable induction technique for new personnel may centre on the kinds of behaviour which the corporation would not condone. Regular refresher training for current and long-term personnel may be beneficial and, in large organisations, this would be a necessary function of the Human Resources Department.

Panera Bread

There was a huge news outbreak when a Panera Bread employee leaked a video of a man laughing hysterically that’s racked up almost 1 million likes (now that’s a lot), as a plastic packet of frozen macaroni and cheese is dropped into a boiler, burst open and then poured into a bowl geared up to serve to customers. The lady who posted the clip offers a thumbs-up in the hat that marks her as a worker of Panera Bread.

A link to the video can be found below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9yGSQ1BULWg

The clip introduced a wave of complaints in October 2019 from dissatisfied clients of a chain recognized for “fast casual” eating commonly perceived as a step in quality above other quickly made or fast food meals. Commenters stated they expected more than warmed-from-frozen dishes, or — as one critic put it — “glorified hospital food.”

Unfortunately for the employee she later posted on Twitter stating, ‘lol I lost my job for this’. The employer was clearly very unhappy at the negative media attention and being ‘outed’ for lying to its customers and providing them with low quality food.

Conclusion

In conclusion, employees should be incredibly careful of what they are doing or how they areusing social media during or outwith their working hours as their employers will have the right to investigate any implications arising from employees’ misconduct.

One of most likely repercussions arising from employees’ misconduct in privacy cases, is that the business and those involved will experience reputational damage. Whether this reputational damage is a result of offensive language in a tweet, forms of bullying in a Whatsapp groupchat or even now a TikTok exposing behind the scene practices of a company – there can be significant consequences. The preponderance of evidence shows that how employees conduct themselves in what they may consider private, has a major effect on workplace relations.

References

Adesokan v Sainsburys Supermarket Ltd [2017] EWCA Civ 22

Bărbulescu v Romania 5 September 2017 (Application no. 61496/08)

Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), (2020) ‘Employment law’ Available at: https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/fundamentals/emp-law [Accessed: 28 April 2020]

Creighton v Together Housing Association Ltd ET/2400978/2016

Crossan, S. J. (2019a) ‘It happened outside work … (or it’s my private life!)’ Available at: https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/07/it-happened-outside-work-or-its-my-private-life/ [Accessed: 28 April 2020]

Crossan, S. J. (2019b) ‘I’m a political activist: don’t sack me!’ Available at: https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/06/05/im-a-political-activist-dont-sack-me/[Accessed: 29 April 2020]

Group, E., 2004. X v Y, CA, 28 May 2004, EWCA Civ 662 – Personnel Today. [online] Personnel Today. Available at: https://www.personneltoday.com/hr/x-v-y-ca-28-may-2004-ewca-civ-662/ [Accessed 29 April 2020].

Knowles, H., 2019. [online] Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/food/2019/10/14/woman-says-she-was-fired-over-tiktok-video-exposing-panera-breads-use-frozen-mac-cheese/ [Accessed 29 April 2020].

Legislation.gov.uk. 2020. Employment Rights Act 1996. [online] Available at: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1996/18/section/95 [Accessed 29 April 2020].

startups, (2019) ‘Employee privacy and employee confidentiality: Know the laws’ Available at: https://startups.co.uk/employee-privacy/ [Accessed: 28 April 2020]

Sterling Law, (2018) ‘Privacy in the Workplace’ Available at: https://sterling-law.co.uk/en/privacy-workplace/ [Accessed: 28 April 2020]

Team Employment, 2017. Employment Law Case Update: Creighton V Together Housing Association Ltd. [online] Warner Goodman. Available at: https://www.warnergoodman.co.uk/site/blog/news/employment-law-case-update-creighton-v-together-housing-associat [Accessed 28 April 2020].

The Independent, (2019) ‘Campus outcry as teacher stands for German far-right party in European elections’ Available at: https://edition.independent.co.uk/editions/uk.co.independent.issue.180519/data/8919156/index.html [Accessed: 28 April 2020]

X v Y [2004] EWCA Civ 662

Copyright Louise Aitken, Siobhan Donaghy, Kieran Flynn and Elisha Masini, 28 April 2020

Volunteers please!

Photo by ray sangga kusuma on Unsplash

I seem to be on something of a theme these last few weeks where my focus in the previous blog (and in this one) has been on agreements which are not enforceable in court.

In my last blog (Rock, paper, scissors …), I examined the historical, legal position in Scotland in relation to gambling agreements. These types of arrangements were – until the introduction of the Gambling Act 2005 – unenforceable in the Scottish courts on the basis that they fell into a category of agreement which was below the dignity of judicial scrutiny (sponsiones ludicrae).

It was with some interest then that the ongoing Covid-19 crisis should flag up another aspect of the law of contract which addresses situations where certain agreements are deemed to be unenforceable.

I am speaking of agreements where an individual volunteers to provide services, for example, to a charitable or community organisation. This type of arrangement is technically referred to as an agreement binding in honour only.

The well known UK retailer, Boots, has recently been criticised for its use of volunteers during the Covid-19 outbreak and accusations of exploitation have been flying around. The retailer placed advertisements for individuals to come forward to be trained as testers. This was all part of a UK Government initiative to encourage people to volunteer to help out during the crisis.

At first glance, there seems to be nothing wrong with what Boots is doing, but the retailer has been accused of abusing or exploiting the enthusiasm of volunteers to help out. The advertisements stated that individuals must commit to work at least 32 hours per week. This situation begins to sound less like volunteering and more about control. The Trades Union Congress and some employment lawyers have warned that Boots may be opening itself to legal action in the future. You may label an individual as a volunteer, but if you begin to treat him or her as a worker or even an employee, you may find that the relationship is not one of volunteer and recipient. In Scotland, this would an example of the doctrine of personal bar (or estoppel as English colleagues would say) in operation.

A link to the story about Boots as reported in The Independent can be found below:

https://edition.independent.co.uk/editions/uk.co.independent.issue.140520/data/9513276/index.html

When we think of volunteers, we do not often think of them as individuals who provide services to commercial companies, but rather charitable and community based organisations. Furthermore, UK National Minimum Wage legislation exempts charities from its provisions – not commercial organisations like Boots.

Genuine volunteers

Such situations arise where the parties (the volunteer and the recipient of services) clearly intend not to be bound by the agreement that they have entered. There is no intention in the minds of the parties to create a legal relationship. The arrangement will last as long as the parties find it convenient. Other side can withdraw from this arrangement at any time without penalty. The party who withdraws from the arrangement may find that their honour or integrity is called into question, but in the absence of legal sanctions, this is a situation that they can probably live with.

There are downsides to being a volunteer: they are not employees within the meaning of Section 230 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 and this means that if such individuals suffer less favourable treatment in the course of their involvement with the recipient, they may have limited legal redress.

Section 83 of the Equality Act 2010 makes it very clear that if a person wishes to pursue an employment related discrimination claim, s/he must be in ‘employment under a contract of employment, a contract of apprenticeship or a contract personally to do work’. The wording of Section 83 would, therefore, exclude genuine volunteers because such individuals are providing services to recipients under an agreement binding in honour only.

In X v Mid Sussex Citizens’ Advice Bureau (CAB) and Others [2012] UKSC 59, the UK Supreme Court affirmed the earlier decision of the English Court of Appeal in which the claimant (‘X’) had signed a ‘volunteer agreement’ to work at the Citizens’ Advice Bureau which was ‘binding in honour only’. This meant that ‘X’ did not have a contract of employment or a contract in which to perform services personally. This meant that ‘X’ was outwith the disability discrimination laws (now contained in the Equality Act 2010) and it was incompetent of her to have brought the claim. The Supreme Court, in a lengthy exposition of the effect of EU Directives, also considered whether there was an obligation placed upon EU member states to outlaw discrimination in relation to volunteers. The Supreme Court concluded that there was no such duty placed upon member states by the EU.

A link to the Supreme Court’s judgement can be found below:

https://www.supremecourt.uk/cases/docs/uksc-2011-0112-judgment.pdf

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 18 May 2020

Kaboom!!!

Photo by Doug Maloney on Unsplash

The scenario

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.

Defences?

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 [2009] 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 v Riding [2009], 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 dissenting view

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.

Conclusion

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 [2020], 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 [2009] and the UK Supreme Court’s decision in R v Copeland [2020] respectively can be found below:

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Crim/2009/892.html

https://www.supremecourt.uk/cases/docs/uksc-2019-0089-judgment.pdf

A link to an article in The Independent about the UK Supreme Court’s decision can be found below:

https://edition.independent.co.uk/editions/uk.co.independent.issue.120320/data/9394451/index.html

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 15 March 2020