Appeal court riot ruling is firm but fair
Severe punishment for those taking part in public disorder is right, as a matter of law and of common sense
The Garden House Hotel in Cambridge will always be remembered by those of us who were students in 1970 for the riot that year that resulted in prison sentences for six students and what was then called “Borstal training” for two more who were under 21. A protest by students against “Greek week” in Cambridge led to what the court of appeal described as a “hooligan trail of wreckage, injury and terrified women”.
Though £2,000-worth of damage was done, it was pretty tame stuff compared with the riots that disfigured London and other English cities in August. But the Cambridge students were tried before Mr Justice Melford Stevenson – then regarded as one of the toughest judges around – and their sentences were largely upheld on appeal.
Explaining that decision in the summer of 1970, the three appeal judges dismissed claims that acts committed by individual students – such as pushing a police officer or breaking a window – should be regarded as if they had been committed in isolation. They were not, said the court, and that was why they were so serious.
Forty years on, that reasoning still holds good with the court of appeal. Lord Judge, the lord chief justice, quoted a lengthy passage from the Garden House judgment to demonstrate that there was nothing new in punishing offenders more severely because they were taking part in public disorder. And that must be right, both as a matter of settled law and of common sense. Judge said:
“The reality is that the offenders were deriving support and comfort and encouragement from being together with other offenders, and offering comfort support and encouragement to the offenders around them,”
Some might have imagined there was strength in numbers. Others clearly believed that a first offender would receive nothing more intrusive than an asbo. We all know better now.
And that, of course, is the point of passing severe sentences. As the court of appeal said, they “should be designed to deter others from similar criminal activity”.
Juliet Lyon of the Prison Reform Trust makes a compelling argument for “proportionate sentences that would have given [offenders] scope to make amends to victims and reflect public support for restorative justice”. But non-custodial sentences would have done nothing to deter future offending. However damaging they may have been to the individual offenders, these sentences were needed pour encourager les autres.
That said, Judge was right to draw a distinction between offences that were intrinsic to the disorder and those that merely followed from it. The lord chief justice is firm but fair: he was right to reduce lengthy prison sentences passed on three men who admitted handling stolen goods that had been looted by others.
As expected, the court of appeal was critical of the senior crown court judge in Manchester for issuing what appeared to be sentencing guidelines. That’s the job of the court of appeal and the Sentencing Council.
The lord chief justice also apparently referred to two emails, written by a senior justice’s clerk at the Courts and Tribunals Service and disclosed to the Guardian last month following a freedom of information request.
It was “clearly appropriate” for legal advisers working for the courts and tribunals service to advise magistrates that they could impose sentences outside the normal guidelines, the lord chief justice said. Nevertheless, he seemed to be suggesting, it was not for magistrates’ legal advisers to issue guidelines either.
For the last few days, we have seen peaceful protests outside St Paul’s Cathedral. No doubt those involved in the protest have never had any intention of rioting. But anyone who might be thinking of sparking a riot in the City of London will now know that prison awaits for what would otherwise be the most trivial of offences.