Less-than-arresting language short on old gags but long on verbiage: The new form of words is a confused and repetitious tiptoe through legal niceties, Tom Sutcliffe believes

THE NEW 60-word caution announced by Michael Howard on Thursday may well be risible but it is far from being a joking matter - you might even view it as the final blow to a venerable tradition of British comedy. Lawyers, unlike comedians, do not much care for double entendres. Indeed, those who have drafted this new warning have been so assiduous in avoiding ambiguity that the likely result is no entendres at all, clarity drowning in an explanatory tangle of tenses and conditionals.

But it does not offer the same opportunities to comedy writers as its predecessors. The well- worn gag in which a constable says: 'Anything you say may be taken down and presented in court' and Barbara Windsor replies 'Knickers]', may finally be leaving the station.

But the new caution does bolster another strain of police humour - the 'Hi was proceeding in a westerly direction when the ve-hickle happroached' genre, which depends on the ridiculous gap between police formalities and plain speech. The vocabulary is not too polysyllabic but that is more than made up for by the redundancy of the new words - not only the repetitions of 'mention' and 'now' and 'may' and 'if' but also the explanation that the warning only applies to 'something which you later use in your defence'.

Surely even the most dim-witted villain is not going to assume that a failure to give his opinion of the Home Secretary or to name his favourite football team will count against him in court. And why add 'if you are brought to trial' at the end? If you are not, the question of evidence being given does not even arise.

The use of 'mention' is odd too. It is a rather casual word of utterance, with a clear sense of tactful understatement, as if the real subject of conversation is something else entirely and exculpation comes to mind in passing. 'I'd just like to mention, officer, that I tripped over the kerb and the brick I was holding inadvertently struck this gentleman on the head. I was checking his wallet for identification when you happened upon the scene.'

The Sun offered the Home Secretary an alternative - not, as you might have expected, 'You're nicked, my son. Tell us the truth or you'll get a right good slapping', but 'Failure to state your full defence now may count against you in court'. Even this, though, strikes me as a little optimistic about our educational standards - what exactly constitutes a 'full defence'?

As it happens, the existing Police and Criminal Evidence Act allows for paraphrase. 'If it appears that the suspect does not understand', it says, 'explain it in your own words'. Even if that holds good for the new Act it will be a bold constable indeed who tries to translate this tiptoe through the legal niceties into plain arresting language.

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