What are retrospective breaches?

Language is the least important casualty of our current political crisis, but it is a casualty nonetheless. In December, London’s Metropolitan Police foolishly suggested that their policy is not to routinely investigate ‘retrospective’ breaches of the law.

I’m not qualified to discuss the legal, constitutional and ethical rights and wrongs of this notion. But linguistically this notion is foolish. That is because it isn’t possible to answer the questions it raises or, or at least only by giving very unpalatable answers:

  • What makes a breach ‘retrospective’?
  • What is a breach that is not ‘retrospective’?  The normal opposite would be prospective but the idea of a ‘prospective’ breach is deeply unsettling. Is that a breach that hasn’t yet occurred?  If so, do we really want the police to be routinely investigating crimes that haven’t yet occurred?
  • How can a breach even be retrospective (or not)? Retrospection seems to be a possible attribute of an investigation but not of a breach. So in the phrase ‘retrospective breach’, the adjective ‘retrospective’ seems to be what is called a transferred epithet. That means it really belongs to one noun (here: investigation) but attaches here to another noun (here: investigation). Transferred epithets are common in poetic and other literary language. But they are not a good idea in language that needs to be precise because it has significant legal consequences.
  • Something is either retrospective or it isn’t. But it would be ridiculous to say that the police never investigate anything that happened in the past. So presumably the intended meaning is as follows: a breach (if there was one) occurred too long ago for an investigation to be worthwhile or sensible. The wording gives no hint, though, how long ago is too long ago.  

This notion of retrospective breaches seems to have first come to into public discourse around 8 December 2021.  The news media that day reported a Met statement that the Met’s policy is not to investigate ‘retrospective breaches’. I can’t quote verbatim because different news outlets give slightly different wording and I can’t find the statement on the Met’s web site.

The Met have issued some clearer statements:

  • a later statement of 16 December 201 refers to ‘our policy where we do not normally investigate breaches of these regulations when they are reported long after they are said to have taken place’ https://news.met.police.uk/news/allegations-of-gatherings-in-november-and-december-2020-439645
  • an undated statement on the Met’s website says: ‘Where the Met receives allegations of breaches of the Health Protection Regulations 2020, we will focus on those that are live or ongoing where police action can enable a change to behaviour that is posing a current public health risk.’ https://www.met.police.uk/advice/advice-and-information/c19/coronavirus-covid-19/met/our-approach/ The flavour of the wording on that page suggests it was written in the first couple of months of the pandemic.

Those statements are at least a little clearer than the very vague phrase ‘retrospective breach’. They make it a little clearer what things the Met would consider in deciding whether a breach is retrospective:

  • how long it is since the possible breach occurred.
  • whether investigating the breach could lead to a change in behaviour that reduces a current risk to public health.

So at least the Met do now have some words out in public that give some idea of what their policy is trying to do. And if, to minimise further confusion, the Met have now withdrawn the notorious words from their website, that would explain why I can’t now (‘retrospectively’!) track them down.

Unfortunately, though, the confusing phrase ‘retrospective breaches’ is still widespread both on TV and in the printed press. That’s why I decided to write this post. It would be good if everyone could now stop using this phrase.

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