A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

The puzzling case of Paul Clarke must be addressed

In Events, Home Affairs, Judicial Spotlight on November 20, 2009 at 6:10 pm

BY TOM KENNEDY

When Paul Clarke handed in a shotgun he had found to the police, he thought he was “doing his duty”.

I took it indoors and inside found a shorn-off shotgun and two cartridges. I didn’t know what to do, so the next morning I rang the Chief Superintendent, Adrian Harper, and asked if I could pop in and see him. At the police station, I took the gun out of the bag and placed it on the table so it was pointing towards the wall.”

Little did he know that this seemingly sensible decision could cost him up to five years in prison. Clarke was arrested, charged with the possession of a firearm and marched off to the cells by an officer Garnett. The former soldier was found guilty of possessing a firearm at Guildford Crown Court on Tuesday, with the jury taking little over twenty minutes to reach a verdict. Judge Christopher Critchlow stated: “This is an unusual case, but in law there is no dispute that Mr Clarke has no defence to this charge. The intention of anybody possessing a firearm is irrelevant.” Many would dispute that intention is irrelevant, at least any local who had read the leaflet printed by Surrey Police, which explained that “reporting found firearms” was one of many things you could do at a police station. The question that really needs to be answered is what Judge Critchlow would prefer Clarke to have done. Perhaps leave the gun on the floor, in the middle of the public field that his garden backs onto?

Clarke’s lawyer Lionel Blackman claimed “This is a very small case with a big principal”. How right he is. Unless this conviction is overturned, it has the potential to change the way that Britons think, and lead to fear and hostility being felt towards authorities such as the police. The  worrying thing is that if many of us found a gun, we would do exactly what Clarke did. After hearing about this case, passersby may be inclined to just leave the weapon on the floor, because they don’t want to be involved or accused of something that isn’t any of their business. Think about who could have picked that gun up if it had been left, and it becomes apparent how dangerous this form of thinking could prove to be. On reflection, Clarke has claimed “I wish I had just thrown the gun in a bush now – however wrong that is. But I wanted to do the right thing.” The message people will receive as a result of this conviction is that doing the right thing is dangerous. We should be encouraging others to think of their communities, look after each other and  be able to put their trust in the police force whilst carrying out their civic duties. This is exactly what Paul Clarke did, and now he’s waiting to go to prison for it.

The prosecuting brief, Brian Stalk explained to the jury that possession of a firearm is a “strict liability” charge. Of course it is, but common sense dictates that a utilitarian approach must be exercised here. The only reason that Clarke was in possession of the weapon was to hand in to the police. It was clearly not his weapon, and he had no intention to use it. If he did why would he have handed it in? The legalistic approach taken by the jury and judge is equally bemusing and disturbing. Public support has grown in favour of his cause, but Clarke is convinced that he will be sent to prison, saying “the judge has to do his job, and his job is to rule on a conviction”.

We must remain hopeful that this conviction can be overturned. If not, the consequences for Britain at both a social and legal level could be greatly damaging.

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  1. Sadly I have to disagree – they won’t be damaging at all – the system is greatly flawed and firearms legislation is complex and generally quite poorly understood – and if you Google on forearms possession cases, in general over the last few years the application of the minimum mandatory term of 5 yrs for particular weapons, you’ll find that many judges have ruled almost in complete contradiction of the mandatory term (for seemingly more serious charges than mere possession – even procurement for example), whilst others have followed it to the letter (see the case on Zakir Rehman for example).

    But my point is that these things go on all the time and the consequences are certainly not damaging – miscarriages of justice happen all the time unfortunately but they seldom rock the system to the extent required to radically change the Law. By and large the Law gets it about right – people in general don’t want to look beyond that – they have too many other pressing concerns in their lives.

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