Ignorance of the Law and the Paul Clarke Case

I do not pretend to have any legal expertise and you can read the opinions of someone who has over at @jackofkent's excellent blog.

The "facts" of the case (as reported)suggest that Mr Clarke found a shotgun and ammunition in his garden, took these items to his nearest police station, and handed them in. He was then arrested, charged with possession of a gun, convicted in court, and now faces five years in prison.

Now there are many reasons to suspect that the story I summarize above may not be the whole story, and, at the very least, may be incorrect in some of the details. Certainly, anyone who knows anything about almost anything that is reported in the newspapers will attest that the newspapers have got vital details wrong. If shy ten year old Priscilla breaks the record for winning coconuts on the tombola for the third year in a row at the local fĂȘte; the local rag will report that "Three year old Priscilla broke the tombola during her ten goes on the coconut shy". I have always presumed that this sort of thing happens because journalist take notes in shorthand, forget all about the original events, and then try to construct a story (using their own imaginations) from what is essentially a list of phonemes. Sometimes, of course, there are more sinister forces at work.

But let us suppose the Paul Clarke story is entirely true and as reported, and let us suppose that the authorities, in spite of all the mitigating circumstances, decided to press ahead with a case like this and apply the full rigour of the law. Within such a thought experiment, many of the concerns that have been raised in the comments on @jackofkent's blog (which we may be able to dismiss once we know the full facts of the actual case) raise their ugly heads and do, I submit, require a reasoned response.

These comments raise a general problem with the law that is rarely discussed: the problem that most people (myself included) simply do not know what the law is (in all sorts of areas).

Recently I found a purse full of money and credit cards on the ground in a car-park in a part of town where I could reasonably expect that the purse might quickly be discovered by someone with less integrity than I pretend to. I had my mobile phone on me so I rang one of the relevant banks (there were no phone/address details for the owner inside the purse). The bank recommended that I take the purse to the local police station - which I did. But suppose I have not had my mobile phone on me and I had been stopped by the police on my way to the station. Is there a risk that I could have been charged with possession of stolen property? I have no idea. Even though I had been following the advice of a bank, banks are not reliable sources of legal advice - or even financial advice (but let's leave that to one side). Even if I had rung the police first, we all know that the police themselves are not necessarily a reliable source of correct legal advice - as in this case where (again, if the press story is to be believed) a man was instructed by the police to walk the streets with a loaded gun.

If I found what appeared to be a quantity of drugs (say) in a children's playground and did not have a phone on me and could not see any passers by, should I take the drugs and hand them in at the nearest police station or leave them in situ while attempting to report my find. I think I am right in believing that (in a case like this) I should have a defence if found in possession of drugs. But I don't know for sure.

On the subject of drugs, I recently attended a drugs awareness talk at the school my kids attend. During the course of the evening, it became apparent that the vast majority of the attendees had absolutely no idea what the laws were concerning the purchase and consumption of alcohol and tobacco by minors in different environments let alone what the laws were concerning illicit (though not necessarily illegal) drugs. And these were educated (often highly educated) grown-ups.

Given that we expect laws to serve as a deterrent and given that politicians are forever making new laws (often to "send a message") I think we, as a society, need to be aware that the messages are often not getting though. I realize that ignorance of the law could never be allowed to stand as a defence argument (for obvious reasons) but this does not absolve the people who make our laws from responsibility to use the historically unparalleled opportunities for the dissemination of information to educate people as to what the laws are and are intended to achieve.

Suppose I found a loaded gun in a park frequented by children (though deserted at the time of my discovery) and did not have my mobile phone on me. What should I do? Leave it there? Hide it? Take it to the police and rely on the good will of the CPS?

I did not know the answers to these questions before the Clarke case and I don't know them now.



Allen Green ("@jackofkent") has carried out some sterling investigation and research on this story and written up his conclusions in a cracking blog entry at: Anatomy of an Injustice.

As I have also mentioned below (in a comment), pace my light-hearted digs at the quality of a great deal of journalism, I have every reason to believe that Holly Thompson's piece (which broke this story) is an accurate and balanced report of the facts available to that journalist and that that Holly Thompson (@h_thompson) is a journalist of integrity.


  1. Thoughtful and thought-provoking blogpost. Many thanks.

  2. Another way newspaper stories can be misleading is by leaving the reader to fill in the gaps with what the reader would "obviously" have done in the same circumstances. In this case the report says the guy phoned the police superintendant and said he would be paying the police a visit the next day. Its easy to assume he told the police about the gun on the phone but the report does not confirm this.

    If he was charged with possession under s19 Firearms Act it would be a defence to prove to the court that he had "lawful authority or reasonable excuse" for possession. The report does not make it clear whether he gave evidence in court. If he did not make any attempt to show that he had "reasonable excuse" the result is not surprising.

    I would have thought if there was evidence he was asked to take the gun to the police station any jury would accept that as "reasonable excuse". That makes me doubt whether he was asked to do that. Perhaps his actions were at best ill advised - or is it even that he was trying to be too clever by half?

    The judge has a let out from the minimum 5 year sentence if the there is a good reason for not imposing it.

  3. Maybe I can help with your legal problems! In your first example of the wallet, no you would not be charged with handling stolen goods because the wallet itself was not stolen-you merely found it on the floor. Neither would you be charged with theft because you had no intention to permanently deprive and were not dishonest.

    In the drugs case, you are not in possesson 'unlawfully'. I completely agree with you that the law should be much clearer and people should be better educated about it.

  4. Nice article, and good point about the drugs. I guess it all depends on how high the local police's arrest quota is?

  5. Very thought-provoking.

    I agree entirely with what you say about not being able to rely on the media to get any details correct.

    With hindsight, the gun should have been left where it was and the police should have come to him, but he did what all of us would have done: phone the local police station and asked them what he should do.

    It does seem bizarre that (assuming the details are correct), this man was doing what a police officer told him to do.

  6. Since writing this, I've seen (via @jackofkent) that the journalist behind this particular account: http://www.thisissurreytoday.co.uk/news/Ex-soldier-faces-jail-handing-gun/article-1509082-detail/article.html @h_thompson stands by her account and the details of it. Of course, the points I was trying to raise stand regardless of the exact details of this particular case, but (having made some rather rude remarks about the accuracy of newspaper journalism) I thought I should pass on this new information.

  7. @GaiusJulius394

    Thanks for that. I rather assumed that would be the case, but I am middle aged, middle class, and white. A young working class black or brown kid who wished to do the right thing in the circumstances in which I found myself might face more hurdles when attempting to establish his good intentions - especially if the person (who had apparently dropped this purse) has (mistakenly) assumed that it had been stolen and reported this assumption to the police. But I suppose that raises all sorts of other issues. My main point - that the law does not always accord with what might seem like "common sense" - remains.

  8. What happens if I find a purse on the floor which has been stolen and then dropped by the thief, perhaps having first removed the cash, but leaving the cards?

    It is now clearly stolen goods, and I am handling it -- but I still have no dishonest intent, nor intent to deprive. Do I commit an offence?

  9. Very interesting piece and thoughtful discussion, thank you.

    Quiet Riots has added a page on this (and there's a link to this page) on here: http://bit.ly/PaulClarkeShotgun

  10. "If he did not make an attempt to show that he had "reasonable excuse" then the result is not surprising"

    Isn't this dangerously close to "guilty until proven innocent"? There's the problem that he may not have been very competently represented -- according to Constantly Furious, his solicitor wasn't aware of the official guidence to the police force. I don't wish to see anyone sent to jail simply due to a lack of understanding of the law, and inadequate representation.

  11. @James: Handling stolen goods is NOT a strict liability offence. You must know or believe the goods are stolen and dishonestly receive them. Handling stolen goods is designed to stop 'fences'.

    @Schroedinger: Alas, you are right. The criminal law is used far too much these days and it serves only to worsen the problems with our society. The criminal law is a sledgehammer, but it's currently being used to perform brain surgery...


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