I mention this because I’m reading Eve Was Framed at the moment – long overdue on my reading list – and right at the beginning, Helena Kennedy notes that successive Home Secretaries “harnessed women’s issues to their own regressive programmes on law and order,” giving inter alia the example of legislation intended to prevent stalking being used to repress picketing. Legislation intended to prevent stalking is also used to victimise young people.
Today the High Court published the case of Harvey v DPP – a very mundane case, as cases go, depressingly familiar in its facts: a youth stopped and searched for drugs, and when the police find nothing on him, they arrest him instead for his potty mouth. His alleged crime was saying to the police “See, I told you you’d find fuck all.” He had, I would suggest, got a point.
The press have been over this like a rash: Licence to Swear! screeched the Mail, To permit people to swear freely at police undermines the rule of law and civilised society, the Telegraph moralised, while Swearing at police should always be a crime, according to the Express.
Well, except that this is not new law – it has never been a crime to swear at the police, as long as you don’t cause them “harassment, alarm or distress,” and the theory is that the police are not sensitive little flowers who might be alarmed by the f-word. That goes back at least as far as the 1989 case of DPP v Orum cited in the judgment, and probably further. The police are meant to be persons “of extraordinary phlegm” according to White & ors v Chief Constable of S Yorks & Ors, a 1998 case in which the House of Lords were dealing with the psychiatric effect of the Hillsborough disaster on the police – hardly in the same league as a teenager using naughty words. The police in this case never suggested that they were harassed, alarmed or distressed by Mr. Harvey’s language. Causing mild irritation, even to a police officer, is not an offence.
This is not new, and it is not news. Sadly, nor is the habit of some officers of using s.5 as punishment for mouthy teenagers who have unhelpfully failed to break the law in some other way.