Can the use of violence against property be justified in the name of protest? This question was recently considered by the Court of Appeal following the acquittal of the Colston Four in January 2022.

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The Colston Four

In 2020, four individuals were charged with causing criminal damage after they tore a statue of slave-trader Edward Colston from its plinth in Bristol city centre. They became known as the ‘Colston Four’. The story made headlines after they were acquitted by a jury, despite admitting to their actions.

Case is referred to the Court of Appeal

Shortly afterwards, Attorney General Suella Braverman described the verdict as “confusing”. She referred a point of law to the Court of Appeal. The aim was not to overturn the verdict (which cannot happen) but to clarify the law for future cases.

The question was: to what extent does the European Convention on Human Rights allow the use of violence against property during protest?

In the trial of the Colston 4, the defendants argued that the damage done to the statue was lawful because it was a proportionate exercise of the right to protest. The right to protest is protected by Article 10 (the right to freedom of expression) and Article 11 (the right to freedom of assembly and association).

The prosecution argued that the conduct in question was not peaceful and so was not protected by the Convention.

If the defendants were right, then it would mean that causing damage to property would be lawful in certain circumstances. If not, then any damage to property would remain a criminal offence under the Criminal Damage Act 1971, subject to a defence of “lawful excuse”.

What did the Court of Appeal decide?

The Court of Appeal sided with the prosecution. It ruled that the European Convention on Human Rights does not protect against violent/non-peaceful conduct in the course of protest. The court viewed the toppling of the statue as violent, so it could not be viewed as a proportionate exercise of the right to protest.

Following the ruling, Raj Chanda, one of the solicitors who represented the Colston Four, said: “We are disappointed by the Court of Appeal Judgment. In our view, the evidence at the trial was that the toppling was not done violently.”

Will this change the verdict?

The Court of Appeal’s ruling will not change the outcome in the case of the Colston Four. The right to protest was not their only line of defence. They also argued that they were preventing the crime of inciting racial hatred, and that they held ‘belief in consent’. It is not known what defence formed the basis for the jury’s verdict.

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