Oblique intent

Why the name? Well criminal law afficionados will recognise the phrase 'oblique intent' as referring to a problem of mens rea:can a person who intends to do x (such as setting fire to a building to scare the occupants) also be said to have an intention to kill if one of the occupants dies? This is a problem that has consumed an inordinate amount of time in the appeal courts and in the legal journals, and can be taken to represent a certain kind of approach to legal theory. My approach is intended to be more oblique to this mainstream approach, and thus to raise different kinds of questions and issues. Hence the name.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

On Guy Aldred

Guy Aldred in 1912

While writing a recent post on sedition I came across the fascinating story of Guy Aldred, the last man to be prosecuted for sedition in Scotland in 1921. Aside from the inherent interest in his life, I was intrigued to learn that the conviction in Scotland was in fact that second time that he had been prosecuted for sedition. His story also demonstrates the way that the criminal law can be used in a repressive way against marginal groups and individuals, and that he continued to fight for justice is tribute to his spirit.

Aldred was born in London on 5th November 1886 - hence his name (after Guy Fawkes). He was raised by his mother and grandfather, both of whom were involved in radical political movements. In his early life he was involved in various forms of radical Christian movements, but from 1906 onwards became involved with Anarchist and socialist groups, regularly writing for their newspapers and speaking at public meetings. His first prosecution for sedition came in 1909 when he took over the publication of a journal called the Indian Sociologist.
This was an Indian nationalist newspaper published in London. The editor, Shyamji Krishnavarma, fled to Paris in 1907, fearing persecution for the beliefs published in the paper, but the paper continued to be printed in England. The first printer, Arthur Horsley, was prosecuted for sedition, but in spite of a warning from the Lord Chief Justice (Alverstone) in this trial that further prosecutions would follow if the paper continued to be published, the printing was then taken over by Aldred, who also contrbuted to the paper. His prosecution followed in 1909. What was particularly notable about this was that the prosecution focused on a particularly striking passage in the paper in which Aldred compared political assassination and judicial execution. He was convicted and sentenced to 12 months hard labour.

On his release Aldred moved to Glasgow, where he spent most of the rest of his life, becoming involved in varous leftist and anarchist groups. He campaigned against the war and was prosecuted as a conscientious objector, serving various periods of hard labour. At the end of the war he was released and immediately returned to a life of political activism - and it was his publication in 1921 of an article in the Red Commune, a newspaper of the Glasgow Communist Group, on the 'Sinn Fein tactic' (standing for Parliament but not swearing the oath or taking your seat) that led to his prosecution (along with two others) for sedition.

There is little information readily available about this prosecution or whether there was any discussion of the nature of sedition, as the case was not reported.  A footnote in Gordon's Criminal Law sets out the terms of the indictment as the publication of words "calculated to excite popular disaffection, commotion, and violence and resistance to lawful authority". Aldred was convicted of this offence and sentenced to twelve months imprisonment.

It appears that Aldred had two further encounter with Scots criminal law, as he was prosecuted twice in 1924. The first was for obstructing a public highway, while holding a public meeting. Aldred sought to argue that there was a right to hold public meetings, but the Court held that this public right was subject to the limitation that it not obstruct the public highway. The second was for holding an illegal public meeting on Glasgow Green. Here Aldred's attempt to argue that the bye-laws regulating such meetings were ultra vires was met with little success.

He spent the rest of life in Glasgow, speaking at meetings, publishing and offering legal advice to working people. He died on Thursday 17th October 1963.

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