Opinion

I was a lawyer in the Colston Four trial. History is not being erased, but given full voice

Raj Chada was a defence lawyer in the Colston Four trial. He says the verdict is the justice system in action - not an attempt to erase history, nor a charter for vandals.

colston four

The statue of Edward Colston on display after it was fished out of a harbour. Image: Adrian Boliston/Flickr

On Wednesday 5 January 2022, four individuals were acquitted of causing criminal damage to the Edward Colston statue in Bristol. The reaction from some in the media to this verdict has been dramatic, bordering on hysterical. 

Let’s be clear on what the verdict is not. It is not a precedent.  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 judge made clear that the defendants could have had a “lawful excuse” and that it was up to the jury decide.

It is the criminal justice system in action. 12 randomly selected people from the local area decided on guilt or innocence. It is not for headline writers in Fleet Street or government minsters to decide. It is for the jury to decide.

When Dominic Raab, the justice secretary, announced his consultation on a “British Bill of Rights” in December 2021, he made a point to referenced the right to free speech and trials by juries specifically. These would be “quintessentially UK rights” that were deserving of more protection.

Yet as we have seen in the fall out since the verdict, this government only believes in these rights if they agree with what is happening in a case – otherwise, the attack dogs are out. 

Suella Braverman’s comments that the verdict had caused confusion and so is considering referring any legal issues to the Court of Appeal, is frankly, grotesque.

The “confusion” is a clear result of the wilful misrepresentation of the verdict by her fellow Tory MPs, who have attempted to use it as a weapon in their culture war and appeal to their voter base. It was a move straight from the Donald Trump playbook, and a shameful indictment of the depths to which this government can stoop.

This 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 “noble 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 out of crimes against humanity. We would hardly say that it was acceptable to have a statue of Jimmy Savile just because he gave to charity, and we can forget about his heinous crimes.

The truth is that the council should have dealt with this issue a long time ago, and if they had, the Colston Four trial would never have happened.

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And a wider truth is that Britain needs 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 the slavery, the shame of colonisation, and the massacres of Amritsar or Bloody Sunday.

History is not being erased but being given full voice so that all people of colours can proclaim a shared sense of belonging.

Raj Chada, a solicitor with Hodge Jones & Allen, acted for Jake Skuse in the Colston Four trial.

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