Human rights not a defence to protesters causing ‘significant’ criminal damage, Court of Appeal rules

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Decision does not affect acquittal of Colston Four

The statue of Edward Colston – via Simon Cobb/Wikimedia Commons

Key human rights such as freedom of expression and assembly are no defence for those being prosecuted for causing “significant” damage to property during a protest, the Court of Appeal has said.

Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett handed down the judgment in response to three issues raised by the then Attorney General Suella Braverman following the acquittal of four defendants (known as the Colston Four) for criminal damage in January.

The four protestors were on trial for tearing down and damaging the Grade II listed statue of Edward Colston during a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol in June 2020. Colston has become a controversial figure in the city owing to his connections with the Royal Africa Company which transported African slaves to the West Indies and America.

The issues raised by the former Attorney General questioned whether Articles 9, 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) may be used as a defence for those being prosecuted for damaging property during a protest. This was one of the defences raised in the trial of the Colston Four.

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The court concluded that “prosecution and conviction for causing significant damage to property during protest would fall outside the protection of the Convention either because the conduct in question was violent or not peaceful, alternatively (even if theoretically peaceful) prosecution and conviction would clearly be proportionate.”

Lord Burnett also stressed that this ruling had “no bearing on the acquittals” of the Colston Four in January. He indicated, however, that where the damage in question was “minor or temporary”, current Strasbourg case law suggests that these human rights defences would apply — though seeking to prosecute someone for such an act as “scrawling a message on a pavement using water soluble paint”, in his view, “might well be a disproportionate response”.

The decision is perhaps unsurprising given that earlier this year two of the judges deciding this case had ruled that for any offences arising out of non-violent protest, the prosecution need not prove that a conviction is a proportionate interference with a defendant’s rights under Article 10 and 11 of the ECHR.

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Responding to the ruling, former Justice Minister and Tory peer tweeted that the Attorney General had “made a Reference — as was her legal right — and the Court agreed”, retweeting the KC and founder of the Good Law Project Jo Maugham’s comments from January appearing to criticise the move.

“Diasappointed” by the decision, Katy Watts, a lawyer for the human rights group Liberty which provided written submissions for the case, wrote. “Instead of continuing to heap protections on problematic statues, the government needs to uphold and protect people’s fundamental rights, especially when it comes to protest rights,” she said. Watts added that the effect of the decision is that “if the Colston Four were tried today, it is much more likely that they would be convicted”.

Raj Chada, partner at Hodge Jones & Allen, the London law firm which acted for the acquitted Colston Four, also said he was disappointed by the ruling, adding that “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”.

Elsewhere, the government’s new Charities Act 2022 will provide museums with greater powers to dispose of objects where there is a compelling moral obligation to do so. This will have the effect of overriding a 2005 High Court ruling that prevented trustees of the British Museum from returning property based on a moral obligation.

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Fabulous decision, but it is a tragedy for ordinary folks appalled by this event that the trial resulted in criminals, as we now know they were, wrongly walking free. It is time to sort out the criminal appeal system so that those wrongly acquitted have to face the consequences for their criminality.



You don’t know the basis upon which the jury acquitted them so in general terms, it’s pretty hard to say that re-trying someone because the state didn’t like the outcome is compatible with their rights. In this particular case I’ve been convinced all along that the jury essentially acquitted them on principle (but again, nobody will ever know).



Excellent, and plainly correct decision.

Hopefully, if this nonsense is repeated in the future, the protesters will be properly convicted just as the Colston Four so patently should have been.



This was a clear case of jury nullification, whether the legal validity of their purported defences had been tested before the trial or not wouldn’t have made any difference to the outcome.



You can’t say this is a ‘clear case of jury nullification’ when, as you admit above, we simply don’t know how the jury actually came to their decision.

What we can say is that there was a real and material risk that the jury’s decision making by a false argument that we now know should not have been put to them at all.



Nonsense. They were told there was a defence that was not a defence. It is a completely different situation to when a jury is told there is no defence and, utterly perversely, they acquit.

Nullification is a disgrace, it should only permit a not proven outcome, which has a lot going for it and should be introduced in England. (And Wales, but we all know Wales is just part of England really.)



These people ought to be hung drawn and quartered. Imagine having the gall to argue human rights after terrorising a city and destroying it’s landmarks, yet the looney left want conversations when it suits them.



It’s trite that a Judge can direct a jury that the defendant has no defence known to law but cannot direct a guilty verdict.

Juries prove that the people are still in charge.


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