Attorney General 'considering' referring Colston case to appeals court

Attorney General says she is ‘carefully considering’ whether to refer Colston statue case to Court of Appeal saying trial verdict is ‘causing confusion’

  • Suella Braverman said the ‘Colston Four’ verdict was causing ‘confusion’
  • She said she is ‘carefully considering’ seeking a review so judges can ‘clarify’ law 
  • Acquittal cannot be overturned; there can be no retrial without new evidence
  • But the Attorney General can ask a higher court to clarify a point of law
  • Rhian Graham, 30, Milo Ponsford, 26, Sage Willoughby, 22, and Jake Skuse, 33, were prosecuted for pulling the statue but were cleared by a jury 

The Attorney General is considering referring the Edward Colston statue case – which saw four people cleared of tearing down the monument – to the Court of Appeal.

Suella Braverman said the verdict is causing ‘confusion’ and she is ‘carefully considering’ whether to use powers which allow her to seek a review so senior judges have the chance 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 down during a Black Lives Matter protest on June 7 2020 in Bristol while a huge crowd was present.

The prosecution had said it was ‘irrelevant’ who Colston was and the case was one of straightforward criminal damage, but the defendants were acquitted by a jury at the city’s Crown Court on Wednesday.

The verdict prompted a debate about the criminal justice system after the ‘Colston Four’ 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.

Tory MP Tom Hunt had said the verdict ‘feels like a vandals’ charter’, adding: ‘This sets a dangerous precedent. The idea that political extremists can remove any statue they like and not be punished… where does it end?’  

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

It is not a means to change the outcome of an individual case. 

Left to right: Sage Willoughby, Jake Skuse, Milo Ponsford and Rhian Graham outside Bristol Crown Court after they were cleared of criminal damage for pulling down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston 

Suella Braverman said the verdict is causing ‘confusion’ and she is ‘carefully considering’ whether to use powers which allow her to seek a review so senior judges have the chance to ‘clarify the law for future cases’

Ms Braverman, MP for Fareham, said on Twitter: ‘Trial by jury is an important guardian of liberty and must not be undermined. However, 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. I am carefully considering whether to do so.’

A CPS spokesman 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.’

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.

Protesters throwing a statue of Edward Colston into Bristol harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest in June 2020

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’.

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