By Connor Steel
ATTORNEY GENERAL SUELLA BRAVERMAN has sparked criticism from fellow MPs and retired judges after tweeting that she may refer last week’s verdicts of the so-called ‘Colston Four’ to the Court of Appeal.
And Labour’s shadow Attorney General, Emily Thornberry, accused the Fareham MP of “playing politics”, with another critic branding her a “disgrace” for interfering in the case that has now reached its courtroom conclusion.
The row comes after Rhian Graham, 30, Milo Ponsford, 26, Sage Willoughby, 22, and Jake Skuse, 33, were cleared of criminal damage by a jury at Bristol Crown Court last Wednesday.
The prosecution arose from an incident at a Black Lives Matter Protest held in June 2020, when a statue of Bristol slave trader Edward Colston was torn down and rolled into the sea. It happened just weeks before a democratic process to move the monument into a local museum was due to finish.
This verdict has prompted a debate about the criminal justice system as the defendants didn’t deny any involvement in the incident, arguing that the statue’s presence was a ‘hate crime’ due to its connections to the slavery trade and it was therefore not an offence to remove it from public view.
It was an argument rejected by the prosecution, which put forward the ‘irrelevant’ fact of who Colston had been, seeking to reaffirm the point that removing the statue was in fact ‘illegal’.
But although the verdict cannot be changed without further evidence or a retrial, the Attorney General said the decision was “causing confusion” and she was “carefully considering” whether to use powers which allow her to seek a review so that senior judges have the chance to “clarify the law for future cases”.
Mrs Braverman said on Twitter in a message on Friday: “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.”
Any such referral would come under Section 36 of the Criminal Justice Act 1972 allowing the Attorney General, following a submission from the Crown Prosecution Service, 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 has since told ITV News that it is “considering the outcome of the case but, under the law, the prosecution cannot appeal against a jury acquittal”.
This potential move from Mrs Braverman has been cautiously welcomed by Tories who feel the verdict has set a legal precedent that could encourage people to attack other public monuments without punishment. It comes as the Government want to increase the maximum sentence for damage to memorials or statues from three months to 10 years, with the legislation called the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021.
Away from Westminster a petition for a retrial has had over 28,000 signatures at the time of writing, rising steadily since it was started late last week.
But opposition voice Ms Thornberry was angry to hear of the plans to refer the case, taking to Twitter herself on Friday afternoon.
She posted: “The Attorney General has a duty to uphold democracy, the rule of law and the sanctity of the jury system, not play political games when she doesn’t like the results.
“I hoped Suella Braverman had learned a lesson after her shameful intervention on Barnard Castle, but clearly not.”
Ms Thornberry’s tweet also refers to May 2020 when the Attorney General defended her then-colleague Dominic Cummings after it was alleged that the PM’s special advisor had broken lockdown rules. In the aftermath, the Fareham MP faced calls to resign from her role in the cabinet after seemingly breaking impartiality. She resisted this pressure at a time of public anger.
Also critical of her new intervention was retired judge and chair of the Society of Black Lawyers Peter Herbert who, during an interview with the Independent, described the Attorney General’s intervention as “a disgrace”.
He added: “The Court of Appeal has no role to play in this acquittal… Her involvement smacks of institutional racism, demonstrating the need to defend the narrative of slavery and oppression, the direct link to colonialism, and therefore to present day injustices.”
The toppled statue is now located in a Bristol city centre museum where it bears the red and blue graffiti of protesters at the summer 2020 event, alongside some water damage from the harbour.
At the time of writing on Monday evening, the Attorney General had not yet responded to her critics and is believed to be making the final decision after a review.
PICTURED BY ITV NEWS: Protestors roll the statue of Edward Colston into Bristol harbour in June 2020 during a Black Lives Matter rally which drew thousands of people to the city