Attorney general says Colston verdict is ‘confusing’ and considers referring case to Court of Appeal

Not guilty verdict has sparked debate about legal system

Matt Mathers
Friday 07 January 2022 13:13
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The row over the Colston statue verdict deepened on Friday after the Conservative attorney general said she is considering referring the case to the Court of Appeal.

Suella Braverman, the MP for Fareham, claimed that the case "is causing confusion" and would therefore consider referring it to senior judges to give them "the opportunity to clarify the law for future cases."

Rhian Graham, 30, Milo Ponsford, 26, Sage Willoughby, 22, and Jake Skuse, 33, were prosecuted for pulling the statue of Edward Colston, the slave trader and philanthropist, down during a Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol on 7 June 2020.

All the defendants, dubbed the "Colston Four", were found not guilty by a jury at Bristol Crown Court on Wednesday.

The verdict has sparked controversy and divided opinion across the country.

Meanwhile, some Conservative MPs such as Peter Bone, the member for Wellingborough, said the outcome was a "dangerous state of affairs" which could "now give licence to people elsewhere..to go around pulling down statues".

In a statement posted to Twitter on Friday, Ms Braver acknowledged that "trial by jury is an important guardian of liberty & must not be undermined" but that the decision in the Colston statue case "is causing confusion”.

"Without affecting the result of this case, as Attorney General, I am able to refer matters to the Court of Appeal so that senior judges have the opportunity to clarify the law for future cases,” she added. "I am carefully considering whether to do so."

The verdict prompted a debate about the criminal justice system after the defendants opted to stand trial in front of a jury and did not deny involvement in the incident, instead claiming the presence of the statue was a hate crime and it was therefore not an offence to remove it.

But the prosecution said it was “irrelevant” who Colston was and the case was one of straightforward criminal damage.

The acquittal cannot be overturned and the defendants cannot be retried without fresh evidence.

Section 36 of the Criminal Justice Act 1972 allows the attorney general, following a submission from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), to ask a higher court to clarify a point of law but it is not a means to change the outcome of an individual case.

A CPS spokesperson said: “The decision to charge was made following detailed consideration of the evidence in accordance with our legal test.

“We are considering the outcome of the case but, under the law, the prosecution cannot appeal against a jury acquittal.”

A barrister who successfully defended one of the Colston Four has questioned the role the home secretary played in the prosecution.

Raj Chada alleged Priti Patel held meetings with Avon and Somerset Police about the Colston case and said it was "not right" she had been involved.

In the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests two years ago, the cabinet minister described the incident as "utterly disgraceful".

She is also reported to have had a "firm" discussion with the then chief constable of Avon and Somerset Police Andy Marsh.

Speaking after the verdict, Mr Chada said: "What influence did the government play in this? What influence did Priti Patel play? We know she had meetings with Avon and Somerset Police about this case.

"It is not right that a home secretary should be involved in ongoing cases and these cases should be dealt with at a local level according to the interests of justice."

A government spokesperson said Ms Patel "rightly meets regularly with the police across the country on a range of issues, including high-profile incidents which are of national interest."

During the trial, Judge Peter Blair QC told jurors they must decide the case on the basis of the evidence they had heard, after raising concerns in their absence that undue pressure was being placed on them by excessive rhetoric from defence barristers.

He also warned members of the defendants’ many supporters about their behaviour in court.

A petition calling for a retrial, claiming the acquittal set a “dangerous precedent that endangers all of our national heritage”, has so far attracted more than 5,000 signatures.

The concerns were echoed by some Tory MPs but others, and several lawyers, dismissed claims that the verdict set a legal precedent which could give rise to other public monuments being defaced.

After the verdict, prime minister Boris Johnson people should not “go around seeking retrospectively to change our history” but added: “I don’t want to comment on that particular judgment - it’s a matter for the court.”

Former justice secretary Robert Buckland defended the jury system, despite describing the verdict in the Colston case as “perverse”.

Additional reporting by Press Association

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