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Court of Appeal rules on point of law within the acquittal of Colston Four

The ruling does not change the ‘not guilty’ verdict for the Colston Four

The Court of Appeal has today clarified the law on one of the defences relied on by the Colston Four.

On 5 January 2022, a jury acquitted the four defendants – Jake Skuse, Rhian Graham, Milo Ponsford and Sage Willoughby – collectively known as the Colston Four of criminal damage charges following the toppling of a statue of notorious slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol.

The statue was pulled down on 7 June 2020 and rolled into Bristol harbour during a Black Lives Matter (BLM) march, which followed the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in the U.S that led to worldwide demonstrations.

The case was latterly referred to the Court of Appeal by then-Attorney General, Suella Braverman, for clarification on whether defendants can cite their human rights as a defence in a case of criminal damage. Today’s Court of Appeal judgement concerned only one of the defences relied on – namely whether a conviction was a disproportionate interference with a defendant’s right to protest. This ruling does not impact the acquittal as the defence case relied on multiple issues at trial and multiple defences. The basis for the jury-reached verdict is necessarily unknown.

The Court of Appeal decided that European Convention of Human Rights protections do not apply where significant damage is alleged. However, the Court of Appeal judgement makes clear that Convention Rights can be relied on in other cases including in criminal damage cases. Notably, the Court of Appeal advises that minor damage to public property should not even be prosecuted routinely, as it has by the CPS to date.

Raj Chada, Partner at Hodge Jones & Allen, comments: “We are disappointed by the Court of Appeal Judgment. In our view, the evidence at the trial was that the toppling was not done violently. The clear view from an expert valuer, which we were prevented from relying upon during the trial, was that the value of the statue had increased exponentially after the toppling. The statue is still on public display as a monument to the evils of the slave trade, not as an obscene glorification of a slave trader. It is a shame that this is the Attorney General’s focus rather than the multiple crises facing this country.”

Laura O’Brien, Partner at Hodge Jones & Allen, added: Local Government did nothing to address the harm done by this grotesque and offensive statue, yet the CPS chose to prosecute four people who did. Curtailing the rights of protestors has become high on the political agenda of this Government. While we head towards economic crisis, no wonder the Government chooses to stifle anything which challenges the status quo.”

Edward Colston was Chief Executive of the Royal African Company, the company responsible for the transport of more enslaved people than any other in history. In 1895 a bronze statue was erected with a plaque describing him as “one of the most virtuous and wise sons of Bristol”. The statue and its inappropriate plaque caused offence to multicultural Bristol; a fact acknowledged during the trial by a council officer. Despite this, and numerous campaigns to have a statue glorifying a slave trader or its plaque removed, the council took no effective action before its toppling.

Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh and Clare Montgomery KC of Matrix Chambers acted as counsel for the Colston Four case.

The Attorney General referred to the case under section 36(1) of the Criminal Justice Act 1972, where the Attorney General decides they want the opinion of the Court of Appeal on a point of law that has arisen in that case.

Comments from Rhian Graham, one of the Colston Four can be found here

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