The Court of Appeal in the UK has been asked to clarify the law over “uncertainty” caused by the Edward Colston statue case, Attorney General Suella Braverman said on April 13.
On Jan. 5, four people involved in toppling the statue during a Black Lives Matter protest in June 2020—Milo Ponsford, 25, Jake Skuse, 36, Sage Willoughby, 21, and Rhian Graham, 29—were acquitted of causing criminal damage by a jury, despite having acknowledged their involvement.
The trial heard that Ponsford and Graham brought ropes, which Willoughby passed around the statue’s neck, and Skuse goaded the crowd into rolling the statue 500 meters (1,640 feet) and throwing it into the water.
But the four individuals claimed that the presence of the 17th-century British merchant’s statue was a hate crime or an indecent display and that the tearing-down of the statue was to prevent a crime.
Willoughby compared the statue with Nazism, saying: “Imagine having a Hitler statue in front of a Holocaust survivor—I believe they are similar.”
Following the verdict, which Braverman said was “causing confusion,” the attorney general said she was “carefully considering” whether to seek clarification on the law for future cases.
In a statement on April 13, she said she had decided to refer the case to the Court of Appeal to clarify the law around protests following careful consideration.
Her office said the attorney general had concluded that the case had “led to uncertainty regarding the interaction between the offence of criminal damage and the rights relevant to protest peacefully. ”
The review won’t affect the acquittals in the case.
The Attorney General’s Office said it will seek clarification on whether someone can use a defence related to their human rights when they’re accused of criminal damage and whether juries should be asked to decide if a conviction for criminal damage is a “proportionate interference” with the human rights of the accused, particularly the right to protest and freedom of expression, as the judge did in the Colston statue case.
In his directions to jurors in the Colston case, Judge Peter Blair QC said they had to balance the defendants’ human rights against the legislation contained within the Criminal Damage Act.
He said individuals have the right to freedom of thought and conscience and to manifest one’s beliefs, and the right to freedom of expression.
“These rights protect not only beliefs, such as anti-racism, and speech itself, but also actions associated with protest,” Judge Blair said.
“Even where those actions have more than a minimal impact on the rights of other people, they need not result in a conviction. It is all a matter of fact and degree.”
He said limitations on human rights are permitted under laws including the Criminal Damage Act if it is “in the interests of public safety or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
The issue of human rights was the last question in the “route to verdict.”
The jury was asked if it was sure a conviction for criminal damage would be “a proportionate interference” with the defendants’ “rights to freedom of thought and conscience, and to freedom of expression.”
Jurors were told that if they were sure the answer was “yes,” the verdict should be guilty, and if “no,” it should be not guilty.
Commenting on her decision to refer the case to the Court of Appeal, Braverman said, “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.”
According to the Bristol government’s museum’s website, Colston, a 17th-century merchant and philanthropist, profited from his shares in the Royal African Company (RAC), in which members traded gold, ivory, and enslaved Africans. He had also been an active member of RAC’s governing body for 11 years.
PA Media contributed to this report.