Supporters demonstrate outside Bristol Crown Court ahead of trial of the ‘Colston four’, December 2021. Henry Nicholls/Reuters
A court has decided that the value of property should be taken into account when considering the human rights of protesters.
The ruling was made after the attorney general referred the acquittal of the ‘Colston four’ to the court of appeal. It means that in future, protesters accused of property damage will only be able to rely on human rights defences in “minor, low value” cases.
In January 2022, the Colston four were cleared over their roles in the toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston, which was dumped in Bristol harbour in June 2020.
The four did not dispute the roles they played in the incident, but asked the jury to be on the “right side of history”, saying that the presence of the statue was so indecent that it was a crime.
The four argued, among other things, that a conviction for criminal damage was a disproportionate interference with their right to protest.
The jury acquitted them, causing outrage among Tory MPs. The acquittal relied on a number of defences, only one of which was human rights. It was referred to the court of appeal by Suella Braverman, attorney general.
On Wednesday, the court decided that human rights defences should only be considered by courts in protest-related cases if the damage is “minor” and “low-value”.
The court’s decision does not change the acquittal of the Colston four, who remain free, as juries have an unqualified right to acquit. However, in future juries will have to take the judgement into account.
The court said that protesters can rely on the European convention on human rights in cases where they do minor or temporary damage such as “scrawling a message on a pavement using water soluble paint”. This might technically be enough to get charged with criminal damage, but if it was part of a political protest this “might well be a disproportionate response”. However, in cases of “significant” damage, the convention should not be relied on, the court said.
Braverman tweeted: “In April, I referred the ‘Colston statue’ case to the court of appeal for clarification of the law relating to criminal damage and protest rights. My reference was successful on all counts. Well done to all those involved.
“Now it is clear: The conduct fell outside the protection of the convention. This was not a case of peaceful protest. The toppling of the statute was violent, the damage was significant and the proportionality of the conviction could not arise.”
Katy Watts, a lawyer from human rights group Liberty, said that Wednesday’s judgement “puts a threshold on when people can enact their human rights in a legal case, and takes away vital protections that empower everyone to be able to stand up for what they believe in.
“We are disappointed that the court has said that human rights are not always linked to acts of protest. By placing weight on the value of an object in deciding if human rights can be taken into account, we feel that the court is shifting the balance too far away from our essential human rights.”
Rhian Graham, one of the Colston four, said: “The positive impact of the toppling for both Bristol, and the anti-racism movement as a whole, can never be undone and this judgement cannot overturn the decision made by a jury of our peers.
“What I would like to know is why our government continues to spend time and taxpayer’s money on defending a memorial of a slave trader via this appeal case and the introduction of a maximum sentence often years for damaging a statue via the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill when there are so many more pressing issues at hand.”
Raj Chada, partner at Hodge Jones & Allen, who represented two of the Colston four, said: “We are disappointed by the Court of Appeal judgement. 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.”
Simon Childs is a commissioning editor and reporter for Novara Media.