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 v Riding , 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.
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:
A link to an article in The Independent about the UK Supreme Court’s decision can be found below:
- Who is Chez Copeland?
- What legislation was he accused of breaching?
- What were the specific offences with which Copeland was charged?
- Does this legislation apply in Scotland? Explain.
- What is mens rea?
- What is the actus reus?
- What is a strict liability crime?
- Was Copeland successfully convicted of any criminal offence?
- What defences were available to Copland?
- This area of criminal liability is covered by Acts of Parliament, so why did the U.K. Supreme Court get involved in the case?
- Does the Copeland decision mean that an individual has the right to make and store explosives with impunity?
Copyright Seán J Crossan, 15 March 2020