Sunday, 18 October 2009

Abuse of police powers – s 5 POA 1986

There is always much controversy about the police, and abuse of their powers. As a general rule, this focuses around stop and search powers, and expansion under various pieces of terrorism legislation.

Today however, I am not focusing on this. I am instead looking at, in brief, S 5 Public Order Act 1986. In my opinion one of the most abused pieces of legislation under the expanding belt of police powers. I have always thought this is legislation which can be both defended and attacked depending on how it is used.
Of course, reading the act gives us the impression that it is intended to stop severely reprehensible behaviour in public that occurs “within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress”. In other words, it should be used to stop the public being unduly concerned in their day by actions that go against that which is publically acceptable. A bit draconian, one might argue, but at least defensible in some respects.

However, my quibble is that it is used in such as a way as to be inconsistent with this. My annoyance has always been sparked whenever I have seen those appalling excuses for popular television that pass for cop shows. Police are frequently shown portraying a role of dealing (badly) with ASB in the public by going round and arresting drunkards on a Friday night in town centers.
I had the misfortune to catch one of these shows, and it neatly demonstrated why my anger at this is justified. I will recount what I saw:

A provocatively dressed young man (his jacket emblazoned with the intelligent slogan “fuck off”) broke up with his girlfriend in public, and, in an ill considered move played a quick round of fisticuffs with a wall. Marquis of Queensbury rules, naturally. No member of the public displayed any concern whatsoever.

An office then walked up to him, from behind, and grabbed his elbow. In response, the gent spun around and said “don’t fucking touch me”. The second officer restrained him forcibly, and they removed him from the train station. After a brief discussion where by the clearly dangerous youth (cough cough) asked politely what was going on, and was clear that he was just uptight due to his split from his now erstwhile girlfriend. His outburst he put as the result of being grabbed by surprise.

Frankly, the young man, despite his provocative dress, was intelligent and eloquent. He declined the penalty and was hauled off to the station. On route the police were forced to ignore a more serious call of a fight with one man being knocked out.

However, the crowning turd in the water pipe was this: he asked why he had been arrested, and the answer was (and I quote) “backchatting” as they drove to the station.

Now, I am pretty sure, “backchatting” doesn’t appear in the statue. Nope, it doesn’t. This is what infuriates me; it’s not an offence to annoy an officer by questioning what they are doing, provided it doesn’t stretch into the realms of obstruction. To be honest, using the power for this is clear abuse. The officer involved here ought to be disciplined, and very harshly. The statute has a legitimate public order aim, but arresting any individual you do not like is appalling. I was genuinely angered by this demonstration of police action, and continue to be infuriated by this statute’s public exercise. This needs a strong guideline on use, and police need to be forced away from doing this. I would go so far as to say current police practices are undermining the legitimacy of the police, as well as the legislation. Worse still, it wastes time and public money dealing with trivial issues that would have deflated had they been left well alone.

Not only this, but given that the words “fuck off” on his jacket were not sufficient to cause the offence, then surely him merely saying it an a manner audible only to his friends isn’t sufficient. Unless, of course, the officers were “person(s) likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress” by the expletive? Seems unlikely. In fact, I would say they can fuck off. Swearing does not really offend the public in most cases. Where a circle of people who regularly swear as a matter of course, to the extent that it is ingrained language, and no one else can hear, it must not be an offence. Therefore swearing in front of the officer is not an offence either, unless they fall under said category. Given that most policemen I have met swear like sailors, I find it unlikely.

If I was grabbed from behind on a Friday night, my response would have been along the same lines. In all honesty I would have responded more viciously as a matter of instinct, and suffered the consequences as a result. That aside, I seriously question the use of this legislation for behavior such as this.

What is worse is the fact this can lead to an on the spot fixed penalty notice. The police get to act as the judiciary as well, even where they may very well be in the wrong as to the application of the power. Given that this event is on film, including the abhorrent “backchat” moment, I am sure a competent barrister would have made a meal out of this. Yet most people will no doubt take the fine rather than be required to waste a day at the Mags court. But that is a whole other kettle of fish, for another day.

My point here is that this statute is misused. It has become, in my opinion, a farce. Being arrested for a section 5 offence has become synonymous with not really having done anything, and probably just annoyed an officer at the end of a long day.

Friday, 9 October 2009

It has begun!

Ok, so I have been away from the blawgosphere for a while. Starting at BPP as a lifer, moving down to the Big Smoke and starting the next stage of my life has been a very busy experience.

The second part to my series on my failed application experiences will come later, but I just wanted to get a quick word in first about having at last started the BVC.

A few first impressions

I arrived, fresh faced and rosy on the first day, ready for all that the world had to offer.

Ok, that's a lie. I arrived late, red faced and feeling like a massive idiot already. My subconscious desire for a more glamorous memory of my arrival has therefore kicked in, and has not so much applied rose-tinted spectacles for the viewing but fired the previous director, hired a script writer, taken on a more handsome model to play me and re-shot the whole opening scene. Ah, much better...

The first week was much as I had expected; the usual gloriously tedious introductory lectures, gratuitous queuing to hand in forms to allow one times to become intimately acquainted with the nearby wall, and other pleasures of equally dubious nature.

Life on the inside is divided into two principle ways. There are the imaginatively titled LGSs (or large group sessions) that are the few lectures we have for each module, and SGSs (small group sessions) that are the seminars. Much time is devoted to the latter this is the focus of "student orientated learning", and fortunately so.

The usefulness of the LGS has ranged from integral to ones survival, to an hour of pointing out the inanely obvious. However with the hoop-jumping attitude of the attendance requirement, being present at all of these sessions is an unfortunate necessity. I have been one of the few who has had their name called out to check attendance, and had luckily decided not to slope off to a nearby watering hole with a friend in the area that day.

The SGSs are equally varied, and the subject and lecturer have huge impacts on how interesting these can actually be.

Criminal and Civil feel too much like undergraduate seminars for comfort, just with longer reading lists. Presented with a long reading list from either the CPR or Blackstone's and a list of questions makes for a dull day in the library knocking out the two. Fortunately I really like my criminal tutor, and this makes the process more enjoyable. As a wannabe criminal hack however, civil is doubly tortuous; it seems so irrelevant to what I want to do. Most of my group are the other way round, and find doing criminal almost an insult. The feeling is mutual!

Advocacy and conference are the highlights of the week. The first advocacy session, despite my insatiable incompetency at the exercise finally made it all feel worth while. For any reader who is at that stage in their degree where they wonder why the hell they are in the library again, this is why. The first 5 seconds on my feet speaking and I knew why I was here. Why the hell isn't advocacy in some form part of the undergraduate experience? My own annoyance is that some of my group are already easily getting outstanding, and my competitive nature is chomping at the bit as a result of only achieving a mid VC. Conference is fun, but thanks to my group rather than anything done by the lecturer. Role play can be made less tedious if your client is played by someone witty and imaginative enough to keep the exercise alive. The marking of the exercises however appears random, and some of my class mates who are clearly performing better are not scoring so, much to their frustration. I for one don't blame them.

Legal Research - Just....No.

Professional Ethics - This has been taught surprisingly well, and role playing your answers to the client (played by the lecturer who was determined to be difficult) made the experience a challenge rather than a tedious hoop-jump exercises.

Opinion (and drafting) - made bearable by the tutor who understands the reality of student life, and would rather go through things in an intelligent fashion and explain what you should be doing to get good marks rather than hammer someone who hasn't fully prepared that week. When she said in the first SGS that she understands that how much you get done each week for each topic is a matter of priority rather than saying "opinion comes first" meant she was getting a standing ovation if my head.

So far the workload has been unproblematic. Treating it like a 9-5 job everyday has meant I have had very few late evenings or busy weekend. Given that Friday's are off, I barely even have to work on them to be easily 24-48 hours ahead of my timetable. Much of my group work this way, and we can often be found en masse in the library working away. If you can work like this, I would suggest it. For the first time in my academic career, I am on top of my work. Shame about everything else in my life! group. I am yet to characterise them fully, although they will doubtless appear from time to time. What I will say now is that they have made the course. They allow the tedious elements to be enjoyable, provide worthy adversaries in advocacy and conference, and the good-natured humour between us has given the experience a much needed lift.

The experience has begun. I am on the inside. I am a lifer.