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Buried in this BBC article is the following paragraph about a girl caught in public possessing a blade which she used to self-harm:

[The girl] later appeared in court accused of possession of a bladed weapon and was found not guilty after magistrates accepted the items were used for self-harming.

This seems to imply that there is a defence to possessing a bladed object that the intention was for self-harm as a reasonable excuse.

However, I find this press report contradictory to this previous report of a sentence by His Honour Judge Jefferies QC who noted his regret that a woman caught with blades for self-harm was 'not really the person [the statute was] aimed at', but nonetheless imposed a sentence on her.

So which is it: is self-harm (where proven or accepted as the intent for carrying the blade) a defence to carrying a bladed object?

For reference, the offence I am referring to is the one in the Criminal Justice Act 1988, s 139. That act provides the following defences to the either-way offence:

(4). It shall be a defence for a person charged with an offence under this section to prove that he had good reason or lawful authority for having the article with him in a public place.

(5). Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (4) above, it shall be a defence for a person charged with an offence under this section to prove that he had the article with him— (a)for use at work; (b)for religious reasons; or (c)as part of any national costume.

So the question is: is 'self-harm' a 'good reason'?

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  • 2
    I believe there is a defence which is simply that you have a reasonable reason for having the knife. It isn't that there is a specific defence that you have it for self-harm."Reasonable" is dependent on the exact circumstances. May 24 at 18:29
  • @DJClayworth I updated the question with the statutory defence, which is 'good reason'. You're right it depends on the circumstances, but my motive in asking the question was to see if there's precedential case law from a superior court setting out if 'self harm' can be 'good reason'.
    – ezgranet
    May 24 at 18:58
  • I think part of the analysis is a root answering the question "when is a sharp piece of metal a weapon", and assuming that a weapon is an object use to harm others, since the exceptions imply a tool v. art v. weapon distinction and the implication would be that in the self-harm context, it might be a tool, rather than a weapon.
    – ohwilleke
    May 24 at 22:19
  • @ohwilleke I think you may be confusing this with a separate statutory prohibition on 'offensive weapons', where that kind of analysis does come up (eg, baseball bats etc); here, simply possessing a bladed item itself is the prohibited behaviour—there are reported convictions of non-sharp bladed objects IIRC
    – ezgranet
    May 24 at 22:32
  • @ezgranet Not really confusing, so much as trying to get to the judicial reasoning involved about legislative intent that it uses as a gloss on how to apply the statute.
    – ohwilleke
    May 24 at 22:41

3 Answers 3

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Theoretically, yes it can, but it is highly fact specific

The Court of Appeal explicitly answered this question in the case of R v Bown [2003] EWCA Crim 1989; [2004] 1 Cr App R 13. The Court held per Keene LJ that self-harm was capable of being a good reason within the meaning of subsection 4 of s 139 (para 20). While refraining from any abstract holding as to self-harm (which required a fact-based analysis), Keene LJ held (at para 24–5) that this would depend on evidence as to how and in what manner the bladed article was intended to be used and the time and place relating to said use.

The burden of demonstrating this fell on the defence and it would require detailed evidence to be a presentable defence. In the case at bar, the absence of any evidence directly linking the possession of the knife to the tendency of the defendant to self-harm meant that there was nothing which could establish the defence to be put to the jury; a high 'degree of particularity was requisite' (para 27).

NB: yes, the name of the defendant in this case is actually 'Bown', not 'Brown'—I know it looks like a typo!

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“Good reason” is for the trier of fact to decide

In the more recent case the judge decided that carrying for self harm was “good reasons, in the earlier case, he didn’t.

The circumstances around the defendants are quite different as well. The earlier case involved a middle-aged woman with prior convictions and the judgement seems to be aimed at providing social support. The other involves a young girl where the arrest was already traumatic and the interests of justice might not be served by a conviction. In theory these considerations are matters of law rather than fact but in a judge only trial, there isn’t the clear distinction between these that there is in a jury trial.

It is likely that the decisions were given ex tempore and therefore we do not have access to the judges’ full reasoning.

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  • Presumably, by "judge-only trial" you mean one held before a stipendiary magistrate.
    – WS2
    May 25 at 13:57
  • @WS2 we don’t say stipendiary magistrate anymore; it’s insistently the unwieldy ‘District Judge (Magistrate’s Court)’
    – ezgranet
    May 25 at 14:40
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In England & Wales, is self-harm a legal defence to possessing a bladed object?

Apparently it is, in limited circumstances, but each case must be tried on its own particular merits.

It seems that the Magistrates' bench in the case referred to in the BBC article were persuaded by "Olivia's" defence that she had a reasonable excuse for possessing a bladed weapon (sic). Note that a Magistrates' Court does not set a precedent so this is not binding on any other court.

In the second case, heard in the Crown Court, without more detail it is impossible to say why. Note that a Crown Court does not set a precedent so this is not binding on any other court.

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  • Your answer is factually correct, but I was interested if there was a precedent from the Court of Appeal or on some interlocutory appeal or by case stated to the High Court establishing better guidelines than these two cases I've picked up in the press, as otherwise this answer essentially is in the same place as the starting point of the question. If none exists, then it's the right answer and I'll accept later after looking myself for precedent
    – ezgranet
    May 24 at 22:37
  • I found some CA precedent on this specific issue so that's the superseding answer I fear
    – ezgranet
    May 24 at 22:57

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