(a) Using Google or another general search engine, come up with a natural language search which you think will help you advise your friend as regards her possible criminal liability if she attempts to sell the flick knives in her possession. Make a note of your advice based on this research.

This is not a difficult search exercise. A simple natural language search like ‘Is selling a flick knife a crime in England’ would suffice to get the basics; the use of a geo-location [‘England’] will help narrow the information down and would be critical if you were searching from outside the UK.

Your search is likely to produce an enormous number of hits, so this is a good exercise in thinking about what sites are most likely to give you authoritative information. You should look for government or other official sources, e.g. gov.uk or parliament.uk sites, or perhaps local authorities or trading standards.

However, even official sites can be less than helpful. For example, ‘Selling, buying and carrying knives’ is one of the top hits from gov.uk. It gives you a breakdown of the law, but without referencing the original legal sources, and the page is also undated, so it is impossible to tell if it is up-to-date.

More helpful is the research briefing ‘Knives and offensive weapons’. This is a House of Commons Briefing Paper on the law governing knife offences. It is from an official source, but it is not legally authoritative in the strict sense (i.e., it is a source about the law, not of the law). It does cite the legal basis of various relevant offences and it is dated: 21 March 2019. There is no evident updating, so it is potentially quite out of date by now. However, it does contain embedded links to the statutory sources in the legislation.gov.uk site, which is authoritative, so you can potentially check for more recent changes there.

The Wikipedia entry on ‘knife legislation’ is out of date.

(b) Repeat task (a) using the same search terms in either LexisLibrary or Westlaw. Would you change your advice in the light of this second search?

Straight away you might get an interesting variance. When we used the ‘crime’ formulation of our search in Lexis, it did not identify any UK legislation on sale of flick knives. This is incorrect. The use of the legally more formal term ‘offence’ resolved that, but it is a good example of how you may need to adapt your strategy to your source.

The great advantage thereafter is that the legal databases give you ‘one-stop’ access to the legislation, (some) relevant case law (though this was over-inclusive), and some secondary sources. They include all the most recent (at the time of writing) amendments to the legislation.

Reassuringly we found that it was possible to find the same information via the web and via the commercial databases. The big difference is that (as you would expect) cross-checking and updating via free-to-use sources took longer and required multiple sites.

In sum, our advice would remain the same whichever way we researched this: It is a crime punishable by up to a maximum of six months imprisonment; don’t do it!

(c) Using either research process, did you find: (i) any specific statutory provisions relevant to her liability?; (ii) any cases on the interpretation of that statutory provision or provisions?

(i) Via your research you should have found the following:

  • Section 1 of the Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act 1959 (ROWA) makes it an offence to manufacture, import, sell or hire, or offer for sale or hire, expose or have in their possession for the purpose of sale or hire, or lend or give to any other person: …any knife with a blade which opens automatically … by manual pressure… sometimes known as a flick knife or flick gun.
    • The offence is strict liability, and the only defence is to show that the conduct was for the purposes of making the knife available to a museum or gallery which does not distribute profits—s.1(3).
  • Section 141A of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 further prohibits the sale to persons under 18 of a knife, knife blade, razor blade, axe, or other article with a blade or sharp point made or adapted for use for causing injury to the person.
    • However, by virtue of s.141A(3), knives within the definition of s.1 of ROWA 1959 are excluded from the operation of this section – i.e. liability for the sale of flick knives is governed by the ROWA alone. This is not apparent from most open internet sources, you need to go to the original Act on legislation.gov.uk, or via BAILII or Lexis (etc.) to track updates.
  • Both ROWA and s.141A CJA have been amended by the Offensive Weapons Act 2019, which has modified the wording of s.1 ROWA to further clarify the definition of a flick knife (Date in force (in relation to England and Wales): 14 July 2021). This highlights the importance of updating, and, again, starting from open sources, these changes can only be identified by tracking back to the legislation itself.

(ii) Case law is harder to locate via a general web search, so you would really need to use a specialist legal information site like BAILII to be confident that you had identified relevant case law. A more refined search, e.g. using the title of ROWA as your search term would give you a more targeted list of cases using either BAILII or Lexis/Westlaw. The case law tends to focus on issues of possession, or questions of whether a particular implement falls within ROWA definitions. The famous Fisher v Bell decision should come up, but its effect was reversed by statutory amendment to ROWA in 1961, which extended the operation of the Act beyond the problematic ‘offers for sale or hire’ to include ‘expos[ing] knives for sale’ (i.e. displaying them), or having them in one’s possession for the purpose of sale or hire. It may be worth advising your friend that possession of a flick knife, even if not for sale is clearly treated as possession of an offensive weapon, as a flick knife has been consistently treated by law as something which is intrinsically an offensive weapon contrary to s 1(1) of the Prevention of Crime Act 1953—Gibson v Wales, R v Simpson, R v Vasili.