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The Colston Four case is a case that has divided the country. To some, the four are courageous individuals who confronted racism, while to others they are vandals. Regardless of one’s perspective, one thing is for sure, as of January 2022, they are not criminals and have been acquitted of all criminal damage charges.
Despite this ruling, however, the Attorney General, in a seemingly politicised move, has announced she is seeking ‘clarification’ around the law related to the verdict. This has been met with significant criticism and many have argued that this decision undermines trial by jury.
This legal query could have wider legal ramifications, too: the trial of the co-founder of Extinction Rebellion has now been delayed pending the High Court’s judgement on this case.
Back in the summer of 2020, Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests erupted in the UK following the murder of George Floyd by police officers while in custody. Demonstrations took place across the country, and including in Bristol, where on 7 June, protestors pulled down the statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston, painted parts of it, and rolled it into the harbour.
The statue had stood in central Bristol for 125 years before it was toppled. Its plaque read that Colston was a “most virtuous and wise” man when, in reality, he oversaw the enslavement of more than 84,000 Black men, women and children. At the time, the toppling divided the nation, but many applauded the actions of the protestors, noting that the statue had been a symbol of oppression for black people for years. One historian David Olusoga even compared the act to the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, while the mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, said it was “important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity.” Banksy even offered the four protestors a message of support. On the other side of the argument were the likes of Home Secretary, Priti Patel, who called the act “utterly disgraceful.” The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, was another critical voice who said he hoped the controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill, which seeks to criminalise protest, would help to close a “potential loophole” that limits the prosecution of those who damage memorials.
Patel urged the police to act, and they did. The four local people (Sage Willoughby, Rhian Graham, Milo Ponsford and Jake Skuse) involved were charged with criminal damage. However, in January 2022, all four parties were cleared of all charges, when a jury found them not guilty.
When it comes to the Criminal Damage Act 1971, defendants charged with such a crime can argue they have a “lawful excuse” for the actions they carried out. The defendants, in this case, argued that the statue represented a “hate crime” and that the statute was a breach of the Public Order Act in that it “incited hatred.” They also stated that a conviction of criminal damage would be a disproportionate interference with their freedom of expression and freedom of assembly rights under Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Following the verdict, one of the Colston Four, Sage Willoughby, said: “This is a victory for Bristol, it’s a victory for racial equality and it’s a victory for anyone who wants to be on the right side of history.”
Although the Court’s verdict on the Colston Four cannot be overturned, following the Court’s decision, Attorney General Suella Braverman QC MP made the decision to take the case to the Court of Appeal. Braverman, who said the ruling had “caused confusion,” in a decidedly unusual move, is now querying whether, in a case of criminal damage, defendants can cite their human rights as a defence.
On top of this, the Attorney General is also asking the Court whether in future, juries should be directed to decide whether a conviction for criminal damage is a ‘proportionate interference’ with the human rights of defendants (which occured in the Colston Four case.)
Speaking about her decision to take this judgement to the High Court, the Attorney General: “Trial by jury is an important guardian of liberty and critical to that are the legal directions given to the jury. It is in the public interest to clarify the points of law raised in these cases for the future. This is a legal matter which is separate from the politics of the case involved.”
When Braverman announced she would be taking the case to the Court of Appeal, many were outraged. One critic, Peter Herbert, retired judge and chair of the Society of Black Lawyers, said that the Court of Appeal “has no role to play” in the acquittal. He added that Braverman’s involvement “smacks of institutional racism” and that the act of taking it to the Court, demonstrated “the need to defend the narrative of slavery and oppression, the direct link to colonialism, and therefore to present day injustices.” Likewise, Nazir Afzal, former chief crown prosecutor, said that to suggest there should be further action around the case is “damaging to public confidence in the justice system.”
Raj Chada, who represented Skuse, one of the defendants, went further than this and inferred there was political bias in Braverman’s decision, saying: “We appear to be seeing the real-time politicisation of jury trials to stoke up culture wars.” Chada went on to say that the public announcement of Braverman’s decision coincided with the police decision to issue FPN [fixed-penalty] notices against the prime minister and the chancellor for their involvement in unlawful lockdown parties, and is an attempt to deflect from the scandal. He outlined that this is of “serious concern.”
This is something that was echoed by Grey Collier, advocacy director at human rights campaign group Liberty, who commented that the government has a track record of trying to overturn things it doesn’t like, and that this was just another example of it trying to subvert the rule of law by “going behind the systems we have in place.” Wera Hobhouse MP, the Liberal Democrats’ justice spokesperson, also likened this move to politicians trespassing into, what she said, should be left to independent court procedures. She added: “The Tories should step back from undermining our democracy”. This is not the first time the Conservatives have been accused of trying to undermine democracy: the Policing Bill, its plan to scrap the election watchdog, and plans to reform the Human Rights Act (HRA), are just some examples from the last few years. While a judgement from the Court of Appeal is yet to be made, Braverman’s actions already have had repercussions. Gail Bradbrook, the co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, is also being charged with criminal damage for her involvement in a 2019 protest. She is accused of allegedly smashing a plate-glass window during the demonstration and causing £27,500 in damage to the Department for Transport building in Westminster. Her trial, however, has now been postponed pending the High Court’s judgement.
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