On Thursday 6 January, four defendants accused of illegally damaging the Grade II listed statue of Edward Colston in the UK port city of Bristol were found not guilty by their jury. For those not familiar with the story, it began with the toppling of the statue back in June 2020, during protests in the city triggered by the Black Lives Matter movement. The verdict instantly polarised opinions; news outlets and social media exploded with comments from all angles.
The response from certain government ministers can only be described as horrified – perhaps not surprisingly, in light of the Government’s ‘retain and explain’ policy and the proposed uplift in the sentence for criminal damage to a memorial contained in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill currently being discussed in Parliament. Robert Jenrick, former communities secretary went so far as to say that the rule of law was in danger while Robert Buckland, former justice secretary called the verdict ‘perverse’. The current Attorney General, Suella Braverman QC, announced via Twitter that she was ’carefully considering’ referring the matter to the Court of Appeal to clarify a point of law. What that point of law may be has not yet been revealed, but many are eagerly awaiting her reasoning as for the moment there are suggestions that her comment is politically driven.
Some of the opinions expressed the fear that this verdict will set a precedent in the event of ‘damage’ that may be inflicted upon other statues. Following the Black Lives Matter protest there were calls for other statues around the UK to be removed. Some councils even pre-empted such discussions and took the prompt decision to take down those considered inappropriate or controversial.
In strict legal terms, a jury trial cannot ‘set a precedent’. Juries are not called upon to explain their verdict and indeed, the veil of secrecy around the discussions and reasoning of a jury is an important and longstanding aspect of the UK’s jury system. The prolific publicity garnered by this trial and the events that led to it, however, perhaps leads one to wonder whether some form of ripple effect could ensue (though the likelihood of a case with sufficiently similar facts and circumstances arising seems quite low). Interestingly, and rather paradoxically in the current context, the change proposed by the Government to the criminal damage offence (in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill referenced above) would have the effect of making jury trials for criminal damage against statues more likely. Without getting too bogged down in the technical detail, the effect of increasing the severity of punishment available for such offences (to a maximum of 10 years imprisonment) is that a defendant might be more likely to end up being tried in a Crown Court by a jury (rather than face a summary trial in a Magistrate’s court), with the possibility of a verdict which some may consider ‘perverse’ as in the Colston case. Much of the furore surrounding this verdict has come from a simplified view of the definition of criminal damage, unfamiliarity with the process of raising a defence under the Criminal Damage Act 1971 and the fact that we cannot know how the jury reached its decision. The fact that juries do not need to explain their reasoning leaves it open to the rest of the world to interpret the reason for the verdict how they wish. Those interested to understand more about the decision and the legal factors involved would be well served by reading the useful commentary offered by the Secret Barrister here.
However, the very particular circumstances of the case of the Colston Four, as they have become known, needs to be considered when thinking about the verdict. The statue has been the subject of repeated pleas for removal or recontextualisation over decades. Colston has been memorialised in the city as a philanthropist who donated vast amounts of money to schools and hospitals. However, in all these commemorations the fact that his fortune was founded in slave trading is omitted. For a while now, many academics and others in the cultural sector have been highlighting the need to recontextualise, or give the full picture of historic events and the characters involved in them. This has generally been slow to be implemented, but the protests following the murder of George Floyd served as a catalyst. The Colston statue has since gone on display in Bristol, still covered in graffiti and with placards from the protest exhibited alongside it, to elicit thoughts from local people about what should happen to it next. In this way, the statue’s meaning and place in history is evolving, in the quest to explain and contextualise it through a new and more complete description and to reflect its continuing story. Coincidentally, it was reported earlier this month that a similar ‘recontextualising’ project is underway in the US for the statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee and other Confederate monuments which are likely to be placed in the Black History Museum and Cultural Centre of Virginia, having been previously removed.
Trials involving protestors are not like ordinary criminal trials because the attempts by defendants to justify their actions can often bring politics into the courtroom. In this case the politics involved a long-standing discussion and a deeply felt objection to the statue in question. Today’s media and fast methods of communication have made it a national discussion. However, as any good student of law knows, each case must be decided on its own facts and so hopefully, if future cases involving statues arise, they will proceed on this basis.