“Those in government who seek to undermine the Colston Four decision should pause for reflection.”
Marc Bloomfield
Description: Colston statute_PA Images Alamy Stock Photo
Lord Devlin famously remarked that ‘[t]rial by jury … is the lamp that shows that freedom lives’. Juries have acquired mythical status for British legal traditionalists. The climax of a criminal trial where 12 randomly selected people from the local area decide on guilt or innocence, rather than the judge – for criminal advocates and litigators, let alone defendants, that moment when the foreperson rises to deliver the verdict of the jury – is indescribable. Months of anxiety lead to a moment of decision. It is the criminal lawyer’s equivalent of the final kick in a penalty shoot-out. It is stomach-churning anticipation that is resolved with exhilaration or despair.
The sanctity of jury trials is proclaimed not just by criminal lawyers but also by politicians of all parties. When Dominic Raab, the justice secretary, announced his consultation on a British Bill of Rights in December 2021, he made a point of referencing the right to free speech and trials by jury specifically – these ‘quintessentially UK rights’ that were deserving of more protection (Human Rights Act reform: a modern Bill of Rights – a consultation to reform the Human Rights Act 1998, CP 588, page 3). So the reaction to the Colston Four verdict among some was surprising and hysterical.
Let’s be clear on what the verdict is not. It is not a precedent for anything. It is not a charter for vandals. Nor is it an attempt to erase our history. It is a jury decision, based on the evidence in the case and the application of legal directions given by the most senior judge in Bristol. It is not a ‘perverse’ verdict.
The legal directions and the ‘route to verdict’ made clear that the jury had to consider a number of issues, for example, whether the defendants had a lawful excuse as they honestly believed that a criminal offence was taking place and they used reasonable force to stop that offence (the offence identified related to the offensive and abusive nature of the statue under either Indecent Displays (Control) Act 1981 s1 or Public Order Act 1986 s5). It was also argued that there was a lawful excuse as a conviction would be a disproportionate interference with the defendants’ rights to free speech. Less widely reported was that two of the defendants relied on purely subjective defences, namely that they lacked the required state of mind for the offence or that they honestly believed that the owners of the statue (the people of Bristol) would consent to their actions.
These are all classic jury matters – to consider the defendants’ evidence, to assess their state of mind and their beliefs, and to determine whether their actions were reasonable and proportionate. In the case of the Colston Four, the jury took about three hours to reach its verdict.
The case was about the specific issues relating to the Colston statue. He was a slave trader who was chief executive of a company that transported more slaves from Africa than any other in history. He later became a Tory MP for Bristol, campaigning against the abolition of slavery. Yet a plaque on the statue proclaimed him to be a ‘virtuous and wise son' of Bristol. Even attempts to put the statue in context foundered on the intervention of an ancient trading organisation in Bristol, the Society of Merchant Venturers, with its own links and legacy rooted in the slave trade.
It matters not that he gave to charity with his ill-gotten gains: you cannot buy your way out of crimes against humanity. As was mentioned during the trial, we would hardly say that it was acceptable to have a statue of Jimmy Savile, and to forget about his heinous crimes, just because he gave to charity. The truth is that the council should have dealt with this issue a long time ago, and if it had, the Colston Four trial would never have happened.
And a wider truth is that Britain needs to come to terms with the darkness of its imperial past. Rather than being taught about the empire upon which the sun will never set, we should remember the barbarity of slavery, the shame of colonisation, and the massacres of Amritsar and Bloody Sunday. History is not being erased but being given full voice so that all people of colour can proclaim a shared sense of belonging.
It was the jury that delivered justice in this case. Those in government who seek to undermine the decision should pause for reflection. In Trial by jury, Lord Devlin also said:
The first object of any tyrant in Whitehall would be to make parliament utterly subservient to his will; and the next to overthrow or diminish the right to trial by jury, for no tyrant could afford to leave a subject’s freedom in the hands of 12 of his countrymen.
In these times of restrictions on judicial review and, indeed, on protest, labelling judges as ‘enemies of the people’, and castigating jury verdicts, it is a warning that we should all heed.
A version of this article appeared in the Big Issue.

About the author(s)

Description: Raj Chada - author
Raj Chada is the Head of the Criminal Department at Hodge Jones & Allen.