LETTER: Blunt talk about sharp objects

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The Independent Online
From Mr Thomas Cleeve

Sir: I read today ("Knife offenders will face jail sentences", 12 December) that the change proposed is to increase the sentence for an offence under section 139 Criminal Justice Act 1988, and to make it an arrestable offence.

Section 139 makes it an offence for a person to have with him in a public place an article with a blade or a sharp point without good reason or lawful authority. Currently, the offence is punishable by fine, not by imprisonment. The section means that anyone who carries a sharp knife is prima facie committing an offence. It also means that anyone who carries a nail or knitting needle commits the same offence, prima facie.

Should anyone wish to defend himself in court against a charge under section 139, the prosecution has to prove only that the defendant was carrying the article. It does not have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that he did not have a good reason for carrying the knife, nail or knitting needle; it is up to him to prove to the court that he did have such a reason.

I, like everyone else, am appalled at the murder of Philip Lawrence. But he was killed not because someone carried a knife, but because someone used it. Laws that sanction using knives to cause injury, and carrying knives with the intention of so using them, already exist.

All criminal legislation restricts the freedom of everyone. The task in legislating is to balance the prevention and punishment of bad behaviour with the general loss of liberty to the public that results. It is dangerous to entrust such a task to a legislature dominated by a tired executive whose desperate attempts to obtain re-election have focused on law and order.

Yours faithfully,

Thomas Cleeve

London, WC1

12 December