Monday, 19 November 2012

Phone Hacking Charges: What do we need to prove?

It’s been widely reported that eight people related to News International are facing charges relating to the phone hacking scandal. This post details what the prosecution will have to prove to secure a conviction. The charges are for conspiracy to commit an offence under section one of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, regarding ‘unlawful interception of communications’.

For a defendant to be convicted, they will need to be:
1.       A person
2.       Who agreed
3.       With another person to
4.       Intentionally and
5.       Without lawful authority
6.       Intercept
7.       ,In the UK,
8.       A communication
9.       Made by a private telecommunication system
10.   In the course of its transmission
11.   Without having the right to control the operation or the use of the system; and
12.   Without consent to make the interception

The first three tests are the ‘conspiracy’ requirements. By the Criminal Law Act 1977, a person guilty of conspiracy to commit crime X is liable to be punished as harshly as a person who actually committed crime X. A conviction here could result in a prison sentence of up to two years.
Crib sheets like these are useful things. They let you see where argument in court really happens. No one will argue in this case that they aren’t a person, aren’t in the UK, or that a victim asked them to tap phones. I imagine some or all of the defendants will argue that they had nothing to do with phone tapping, that it happened where they were working but they didn’t know about it and weren’t involved.

It’s interesting that the prosecutors have gone for the ‘inchoate’ offence of conspiracy. Inchoate offences are the step behind the actual commission of an offence. Attempted murder or conspiracy to defraud. The attraction for a prosecutor is that you don’t need to show that the thing happened. Here, the actual phone tapping will be excellent evidence that the defendants conspired to do it, but prosecutors don’t need to show that Rebekah Brooks sat down one day and hacked phones.

Inchoate offences are interesting because it makes us wonder about why things are bad. Attempted murder can result in the same sentence as murder, because why should an incompetent or unlucky assailant get off lightly? But, the reality is, a conspirator need not necessarily have caused any harm. When we decide what crimes are, should we be more concerned with harm caused or the intrinsic naughtiness of an action? If one pushes the boundaries of conspiracy too far, you can end  in the realms of fantasists. Which is exactly what this policeman is arguing – he says he never actually intended to do the thing (my step 2). 

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