Alfie Meadows and the right to protest

In 2010 Alfie Meadows was an unknown philosophy student at Middlesex University.  He was one of the many to have taken part in a student protest regarding the proposed increase in tuition fees.  Following that protest, Alfie endured emergency brain surgery having been hit in the head with a police truncheon.

Alfie and fellow protester Zak King, were later charged with violent disorder.  The pair were tried in the Crown Court in front of a jury.  Neither were convicted, nor were they acquitted.  That jury couldn’t agree on a verdict, and so they faced a re-trial.  The retrial was aborted and so now, in February 2013, over two years on from the protests, they are on trial for a third time.

Violent disorder is an offence under section 2 of the Public Order Act 1986.  The offence is committed where three or more individuals, present together, use or threaten unlawful violence, where their actions would cause a reasonable person present at the scene to fear for his safety.  The offence is an “either-way” offence, triable either in the Crown Court in front of a jury, or in the Magistrates’ Court in front of a lay bench of Magistrates, or a District Judge (or deputy).  In the Crown Court, the maximum sentence is five years, and unlimited fine, or both.

Alfie Meadows and Zak King are being tried in the Crown Court, and therefore face a significant prison sentence should they be convicted.

Leaving the evidence aside, as the third trial is ongoing, Alfie’s case raises various questions about the justice system.  What should be done when a jury or a lay bench of Magistrates’ cannot agree on a verdict?  Should the matter always be re-tried, or is there a risk that, given the fact that the evidence is likely to have been reported in the press, the new jury or lay bench would have heard of the case, and already formed a view?  Is it always in the public interest to re-try every case?   What about summary-only offences?  These are the less serious offences, which can only be tried in a Magistrates’ Court.  Is there a public interest in re-trying these offences when a verdict cannot be determined?

Photos courtesy of socialistrevolutionary.org and guardian.co.uk

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7 thoughts on “Alfie Meadows and the right to protest

  1. James

    Well, my personal opinion is that failure to agree on a verdict indicates the prosecution has not proved their case beyond all reasonable doubt. If the prosecution’s case does cannot convince (at the very least) ten objective people of a person’s guilt, I would suggest that the evidence is clearly lacking. Hence, the verdict should be not guilty, or maybe (since they will have convinced a few) something along the lines of the “not proven” verdict in Scotland.

    Reply
  2. Sara Williams Post author

    Thanks for your comment James. I should add, re-trials are not automatic. The public interest and evidential tests continue to apply.

    However, that said, I recently represented a young man charged with two relatively minor driving offences. At the first trial the bench (consisting of two lay magistrates) were unable to agree on a verdict. I submitted that this clearly meant that the prosecution hadn’t proved their case, as only one of the two magistrates were sure of the defendant’s guilt. Unsurprisingly that submission fell on deaf ears, and a re-trial was ordered. Those instructing me wrote to the CPS expressing their concerns that it was no longer in the public interest to try the case, but the matter progressed to trial two. The cost implications in this were huge. My client was not eligible for legal aid and was funding his defence himself, despite being reliant on benefits, because the legal aid system does not accommodate those charged with non-imprisonable offences. Fortunately, he was acquitted at the second trial, and so I was able to apply for a Defendant’s Costs Order. Now the tax payer will be paying my fees, and those of my Instructing Solicitor.

    Was there a public interest in continuing to prosecute my client, given the relatively minor nature of the offences (punishable by way of fine and 3 points) and the fact that the Crown had tried once before and failed? I think not. Was it a waste of tax payer’s money? I think so.

    Reply
  3. Adam Snow

    Firstly I think it’s a bit unfair to say in your piece ‘leaving the evidence aside’ and yet earlier in the piece you make direct reference to evidence of alleged police brutality. I can’t see any other point really mentioning the defendant’s brain injury. Stacking the argument unfairly IMHO.

    Secondly being found not guilty and being unable to reach a decision are completely different. In fact if you are found guilty at the magistrates court then that is not always the end of the matter in any event as the prosecution may appeal by way of case stated.

    Finally not stating what driving offences the client was charged with makes it hard to judge the public interest. If it was a strict liability offence then there may be important principled reasons why the prosecution may want to reopen the case.

    Thank you for clarifying in the comments section that re-trials are not automatic, I think the main piece can be read as implying that.

    Reply
    1. Sara Williams Post author

      Adam,

      Thanks for your comment. We’re always keen to open up the debate and so thank you for your thoughts. I’m sorry you feel the article is unfair, but it is an opinion piece.

      I think you mean “not guilty” in your second paragraph? If so, you’re right, the prosecution can appeal, however in my experience this is rare.

      The driving offences were (1) using a hand-held mobile phone whilst driving and (2) failing to stop for a police officer. The Crown asserted that my client was holding a mobile phone whilst stationary in a queue of traffic and continued to do so whilst driving a few yards, at a speed of less than 10mph, and that he stopped 100 yards away from the officer in question, whereas the officer felt there was an appropriate place to stop within 30 yards.

      Reply
  4. Adam Snow

    Sara,

    Yes you are entirely correct I meant ‘not guilty’ many apologies. Thank you for taking the time to respond. Having worked in local government prior to going into academia I know we wanted to appeal ‘not guilty’s’ many times but rarely did so due to cost reasons more than anything. In relation to the second charge I think you have a good point it is does seem rather pointless and subject to opinion. But I wouldn’t agree with this on the first charge.

    Reply
  5. Adam Shire

    I disagree with Adam Snow, by agreeing with your second charge or, as we should say proposal further, as I have read of too many instances of blatant waste of public funds when a split panel is the outcome. Here it is best to consider the defendant acquitted rather than to retry the defendant, limited however to non-violence-related summary or either way offences. I cannot think of an example in these instances where it is in the public interest to order a retrial. Violence connotes threats and illegal sexual behaviour as well in this context. I think it important to distinguish this wide category, as, whilst it may be:

    1. In the public’s taste to want to see a retrial we saw with non-violent either way offences, in the trial of Vicki Pryce, this was clearly not a good use of taxpayer’s money. The length or severity of the sentence is irrelevant. Ms Pryce may well go to prison for 6 months if that is what the judge considers is justice in the case, the fact is that it was completely unrelated to violence and wasted so much money on a fresh jury implies it would have been far more in the public interest, rather than in the public taste to have acquitted her after the first trial failed spectacularly even on a majority verdict. A further telling factor was that, shown by question 3. of the ten questions asked, the defence carried considerable weight with some members of the jury. http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/2013/feb/20/vicky-pryce-trial-10-questions

    2. In respect of offences which are non-violent either way offences that have led to a split panel/jury on a majority direction, it is more likely that a retrial is a waste of money. Examples from the site of one criminal law solicitors’ firm:
    ● Theft/Theft from Employer
    ● Burglary whether commercial or dwelling (not aggravated which is indictable only)
    ● Fraud/Deception
    ● Drug Offences (Importation, Supply or Simple Possession)
    ● Section 4 Harassment (again, non-violent only)
    ● Criminal Damage (exceeding £5,000)
    ● Perverting the course of justice/ wasting police time (in relation to a non-violent offence)
    ● Racially or Religiously motivated offences (not offences that are indictable)
    ● Dangerous Driving (excluding any violent offence)

    In the meantime we see officers, who need to be monitoring areas, events, and people arresting offenders, instead attending court to give their accounts again and carers being away from those they care for to attend court. And those applying and assisting the jury in the law paid twice.

    Reply
  6. Pingback: Alfie Meadows and Zak King acquitted of violent disorder | UK Criminal Law Blog

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