Former justice secretary defends jury trials despite ‘perverse’ Colston verdict

·3-min read
The statue of Edward Colston was toppled during a Black Lives Matter protest rally in Bristol in June 2020 (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Archive)
The statue of Edward Colston was toppled during a Black Lives Matter protest rally in Bristol in June 2020 (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Archive)

Former justice secretary Robert Buckland has defended the jury system, despite describing the verdict in the Edward Colston statue case as “perverse”.

He is one of a number of ministers and lawyers who have weighed in on the outcome, following the acquittal of four people for criminal damage for helping topple the memorial to the slave trader.

Rhian Graham, Milo Ponsford, Sage Willoughby and Jake Skuse elected to be tried by jury.

Former justice secretary Robert Buckland was speaking on BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme (Jonathan Brady/PA) (PA Archive)
Former justice secretary Robert Buckland was speaking on BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme (Jonathan Brady/PA) (PA Archive)

None of them denied involvement in the incident on June 7 2020, but claimed the presence of the statue was a hate crime and it was therefore not an offence to remove it.

The Tory MP told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme the decision was “perverse”, adding: “I think anybody watching those scenes cannot fail to be disturbed at the very least and appalled by what happened.”

But he continued: “I don’t think we want to see our crown courts becoming political playgrounds – they’re not places for politics, they’re places for the law to be applied and for the evidence to be assessed.

“Sometimes we will get jury verdicts that perhaps fly in the face of the law and sometimes the evidence, that is the price we pay for the admirable system, the system of jury trials that I and many others strongly believe in.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was fine to try and remove a statue through a democratic process (Peter Cziborra/Reuters/PA) (PA Wire)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was fine to try and remove a statue through a democratic process (Peter Cziborra/Reuters/PA) (PA Wire)

Elsewhere, the Prime Minister declined to comment directly on the outcome, but compared tearing down memorials to controversial figures to “some person trying to edit their Wikipedia entry”.

Speaking at a vaccination centre in Moulton Park, Northampton, Boris Johnson said: “What you can’t do is go around seeking retrospectively to change our history or to bowdlerise it or edit it in retrospect.”

Mr Johnson said it was fine to try and remove a statue through a democratic process, but added: “I think that, in general, we should preserve our cultural, artistic, historical legacy – that’s my view.”

A petition to retry the defendants launched by campaign group Save Our Statues has attracted over 3,500 signatures.

Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg denied the Colston case set a precedent (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Wire)
Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg denied the Colston case set a precedent (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Wire)

The group said the verdict created a “dangerous precedent” and claimed undue pressure was placed on the jury by defence barristers claiming “the world was watching their decision”.

But Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg described the jury system as one of the UK’s “greatest monuments”.

He told MPs: “The decision does not set a precedent. It was a case decided by a jury on the facts before them.”

Mr Rees-Mogg added: “I think he is right that we should protect monuments, right that they should be removed by due process, but one of our greatest monuments is the jury system which is the greatest protector of our liberties.”

Sage Willoughby, left to right, Jake Skuse, Milo Ponsford and Rhian Graham were cleared of criminal damage for toppling the Edward Colston statue (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Wire)
Sage Willoughby, left to right, Jake Skuse, Milo Ponsford and Rhian Graham were cleared of criminal damage for toppling the Edward Colston statue (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Wire)

He was responding to Conservative MP for Kettering Philip Hollobone, who called for a statement from the Commons Speaker setting out that statues must be removed by “lawful means”.

Mr Hollobone added: “If the Government doesn’t make this clear, those monuments that some people don’t like, as a result of the recent court case in Bristol, are now at greater risk of defacement, destruction or removal.”

Former Government minister Robert Jenrick the Conservative MP for Newark, said on Twitter: “We undermine the rule of law, which underpins our democracy, if we accept vandalism and criminal damage are acceptable forms of political protest. They aren’t. Regardless of the intentions.”

But legal commentator David Allen Green responded: “Jury verdicts do not ‘undermine the rule of law’.

“Jury verdicts are part of the rule of law. An acquittal is as much an aspect of due process as a conviction.”

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