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The Colston four: what does the verdict mean for the UK justice system?

The Colston four: what does the verdict mean for the UK justice system?

The four people who were charged with pulling down the statue of former slave trader Edward Colston have been acquitted for a charge of criminal damage. The decision was met with adulation from some, but also with scepticism that it could lead to a new precedent that pulling down distasteful statues will not be criminalised.

Jake Skuse, 36, Rhian Graham, 29, Milo Ponsford, 25, and Sage Willoughby, 21, were all found not guilty of criminal damage at Bristol Crown Court yesterday (Wednesday 5th January) afternoon.

The four involved did not contest that they pulled down the statue, but instead their barristers argued that the Colston statue was inappropriate and offensive and that over the years, thousands had signed petitions to have it removed, making the decision to pull it down, lawful.

In closing statements, the defence had urged jurors to “be on the right side of history”.

 

Was it the right decision?

The verdict has unsurprisingly been met with a polarised reaction.

Labour MP Clive Lewis, said:

“A British jury has confirmed the toppling of Edwards Colston’s statue was not a criminal act. The real crime was the fact the statue was still there when protesters pulled it down.

However, former Justice Secretary Robert Jenrick criticised the decision, stating that the verdict undermined the “rule of law”.

 

 

But does it? The answer is not really. Well known legal author and Twitter personality, The Secret Barrister, set the record straight by responding to Robert Jenrick saying:

“Actually, we undermine the rule of law when politicians cynically attack and misrepresent the verdicts of independent juries in order to fuel their clickbait culture wars.”

The defendants were acquitted due to the fact that their actions, in this specific case, were not deemed to be criminal by the Jury.

The defence barristers argued that the defendants had a defence from their actions based upon the argument that the presence of the statue itself constituted an offence under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 and they acted in the prevention of a crime. They also argued that the jury should consider whether the statue constituted an ‘indecent display’ under Section 1 of the Indecent Displays (Control) Act 1981.

It was also argued, following the precedent of DPP v. Ziegler [2021] UKSC 23, whether a conviction of the defendants would have been a disproportionate infringement of the defendants' rights under Articles 9, 10 and 11 of the Human Rights Act 1998.

Ultimately, the Jury decided acquit the defendants for their actions based on these arguments.

 

Does it set a precedent?

Simply put, no.

The trial took place at a Crown Court, which has no ability to set precedent in law. Only appellate courts (which are higher courts where decisions are appealed to) have the ability to do this.

Historically, decisions in Crown Courts can be used to persuade Juries in future cases, but this does not set any kind of precedent that has to be followed in law.

This quite clearly does not give carte blanche to cause criminal damage in the future or suggest in any way that a Jury would arrive at the same decision in a different case with entirely different facts.

 

 

Another question is whether the decision creates a sentiment to change the law so that, as a blanket rule, such actions would not result in future trials. Simply put, the law is changing, but not in that direction.

The, soon to be voted on, Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing bill will give the police far greater powers to prevent protests, with the police able to set noise limits on a protest, as well as beginning and end times.

The bill also seeks to increase the potential sentences for defacing statues to 10-year - an apparent response to the Black Lives Matter protests that saw several statues, mostly those of former slave traders, defaced in the months before the bill was proposed in 2021.

 

Should it have even gone to Court?

In a press conference following the verdict, one of the defence barristers, Raj Chada, said “the prosecution was not in the public interest in any shape or form”.

Not all cases will go to trial, with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) having to decide whether a prosecution is in the public interest. This often means that cases will not go to trial if it is deemed that a conviction will not be worth spending significant public resources on. The requirement for a ‘public interest' in prosecution is a bar that has to be cleared for the CPS to pursue charges in any case.

The decision to prosecute in this case was doubtful due to the public sentiment towards the pulling down of the statue – many were supportive of the decision to pull down the statue in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests that were sparked by the killing of George Floyd in the United States.

Chada said he was “amazed that the CPS rejected our representations and decided to prosecute this case”.

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