Attorney General ‘carefully considering’ referring Edward Colston statue case to Court of Appeal

The Colston Four and supporters outside Bristol Crown Court Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

The Attorney General is considering referring the case in which four people were cleared of tearing down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston to the Court of Appeal.

Rhian Graham, 30, Milo Ponsford, 26, Sage Willoughby, 22, and Jake Skuse, 33, were charged with criminal damage after the statue was pulled down during a Black Lives Matter protest on June 7 2020 in Bristol while a huge crowd was present.

They were acquitted by a jury at Bristol Crown Court on Wednesday.

Attorney General 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 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."

The verdict prompted a debate about the criminal justice system after the defendants – dubbed 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.

The prosecution said it was “irrelevant” who Colston was and the case was one of straightforward criminal damage.

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

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

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.

He also warned members of the defendants’ many supporters about their behaviour in court.

The statue of Edward Colston was pushed into Bristol harbour after being toppled during a Black Lives Matter protest Credit: Ben Birchall/PA

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 13,000 signatures.

The concerns were echoed by some Tory MPs but others, and several lawyers, dismissed claims 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”.

Protesters dragging the statue of Edward Colston to Bristol harbourside Credit: Ben Birchall/PA Wire

Nazir Afzal, a former chief crown prosecutor for the North West, said a jury verdict does not set a precedent.

Posting on Twitter in response to the petition, he said: “You cannot appeal or have a retrial.

"I can think of 100s of jury verdicts that I didn’t agree with, based on the evidence – but the jury system is the best we have I think Govt ministers (current & former) & DPP (the director of public prosecutions) need to speak up to educate the citizen rather than feed ignorance or allow misinformation to flourish.”

Matthew Scott, a barrister with Pump Court Chambers and legal blogger, said: “Prosecutors cannot challenge the verdicts. The Attorney General can ask the Court of Appeal to consider any points of law that arose, but any ruling would not affect the acquittals.”

In another tweet, human rights barrister Adam Wagner added: “There is a basic issue which will be becoming clear to ministers – a jury verdict sets no precedent, so the law is as it was, but a Court of Appeal decision would set an important precedent, which may not be the one the govt wants.”