The Court of Appeal has been asked to evaluate how judges should direct juries in criminal cases brought against protesters, following the acquittal of four protestors who pulled down the statue of Bristol slave-trader Edward Colston. Announcing that she had referred the case this week, the attorney general, Suella Braverman QC MP, noted that the case has led to a lack of certainty around the offence of criminal damage and the right to peaceful protest.
Braverman’s decision is simultaneous with the publication by thinktank Policy Exchange of a report by a former Old Bailey judge highlighting questions about the trial’s conduct. In the report, Charles Wide QC sates that the jury’s verdicts were not ‘perverse’ based on the case’s evidence. However he noted that the defences used – reasonable force to prevent crime and that conviction would have been a unreasonable interference with human rights – should not have been put in the jury’s hands.
Condemning the case management of the trial, he said that all parties have a responsibility to make sure that such hearings are carried out in line with the criminal procedure rules. ‘With the state of the law as it is, or may be, the conduct of such trials is fraught with manifold difficulties.’
Reporting her referral of the case, Braverman said: ‘Trial by jury is an important guardian of liberty and critical to that are the legal directions given to the jury. It is in the public interest to clarify the points of law raised in these cases for the future. This is a legal matter which is separate from the politics of the case involved.’
The attorney general’s office announced that the power to refer criminal cases has been used 19 times since 2000; the last time in December 2020 to define the law in relation to sexual assault.