The 2019 Offensive Weapons Act made it an offence, for the first time, to simply possess certain offensive weapons in private. Acknowledged as an increase in interference in the private lives of the public, yet deemed necessary to tackle violent crime, the legislation was limited to certain types of offensive weapon. Included on that list were so-called ‘zombie knives’. Fast-forward four years, and there is increased pressure on the Government, including from the Judiciary, campaigners, and the Opposition, to widen the scope of the current definition of what a ‘zombie knife’ constitutes. However, this is not without its associated concerns.
Under the legislation, the “the weapon sometimes known as a ‘zombie knife’, ‘zombie killer knife’ or ‘zombie slayer knife’” is defined as a blade with;
Crucially, there is no requirement for a zombie knife to be manufactured with all three elements. It is sufficient that the blade has all three elements.
Unlike possession in a public place, reasonable excuse does not operate as a defence for possession in a private place. The only defences available are:
The legislation, therefore, essentially sets out a strict liability offence in relation to possession of certain offensive weapons in a private place. There are currently no published Sentencing Council Guidelines, but the maximum sentence as set out in s.141(1A) Criminal Justice Act 1988 is 51 weeks imprisonment, and/or a fine.
Proposed Legislative Changes
Since the introduction of the 2019 Act, there has been constant criticism from campaigners that zombie knives were still being sold and manufactured, simply with the images or words removed. There would therefore not qualify under the legislative definition as ‘zombie knives’. In April of this his year, HHJ Christine Laing KC urged jurors “to write to your MPs and ask why it is that weapons like the one you saw in this case can be bought from a website legitimately” following a murder trial. In response, the Home Office launched a consultation into further legislation to dampen the sale and use of zombie knives, including a proposal of “a targeted ban of certain types of large knives that seem to be designed to look menacing with no practical purpose”.
The current ‘legislative loophole’ that the Government seeks to close demonstrates a fundamental issue – how to accurately describe ‘zombie knives’ in legislation to effectively combat them practically.
Newport Magistrates’ Court heard a case in June 2023 which shone a light squarely on the difficulties of legislating for the definition of a ‘zombie knife’. Here, a man had been arrested for the possession of a bayonet-style survival knife, onto which the phrase “your soul is mine” had been crudely etched, clearly post manufacture. The knife as manufactured would not have fallen foul of the specific schedule of offensive weapons to which s.46 Offensive Weapons Act 2019 and s.141 Criminal Justice Act 1988 applies.
Expert evidence heard at trial attempted to articulate the difference in colloquial understanding between zombie knives (complete with pictures) and the survival knife in question. However, the blade fulfilled the legislative definition; it had a cutting edge, a serrated edge, and words that suggest it was to be used for the purpose of violence. There is no requirement under the legislation for the blade to have been manufactured with all three elements.
The defence of reasonable excuse unavailable, the Defendant was found guilty of possession in a private place of an offensive weapon.
What this case demonstrates is both the difficulty in attempting to define zombie knives, and also the increase in interference into the private lives of the public, with few available defences. The proposed definition under the current Home Office consultation would take such interference further – “seem designed to look menacing”. This has the potential to overcome the definitional difficulties, yet relies to a large degree on interpretation, both by the Police and by the Courts. As already demonstrated under the current definition, interpretation can have unintended consequences, with the possibility of 51 weeks imprisonment.
 S.46 Offensive Weapons Act 2019
 The Criminal Justice Act 1988 (Offensive Weapons) Order 1988, Schedule 1(s)