The recent acquittal of the Colston 4 demonstrates the power of trial by jury. While our courts had only heard cases ruled in by a magistrate, in the early 1970s they were adapted to become jury courts.

Trial by a jury of our peers has been a vital part of the English criminal justice system for centuries, some would argue since the promise of a fair trial in Magna Carta (1215). Verdicts decided by juries protect defendants from oppression by the state: from the rule of individual judges, and from trial under unjust laws. But it has taken us a while to have juries that are representative of our communities. Women were not allowed to serve as jurors until the Sex Disqualification Removal Act, 1919. The very first women jurors sat the following year - in Bristol! Not here, but at the Bristol Quarter Sessions held at the Guildhall (now the city’s crown court) in July 1920. It wasn’t until 1972 that the property qualification for jury service was removed, and all people over 18 registered to vote could be jurors.

Bristol Guildhall and crown court. CC0

Jury trials really demonstrate the ways in which the courts function as a site of social contest. A place where what is, and what isn’t, acceptable in society is decided in public by members of the public. The questions before the jury that heard the case of the Colston 4 were whether the defendants had committed criminal damage in toppling the statue, or whether they had a lawful reason in removing an ‘abusive’ ‘visible representation’ which ‘caused distress’ – also defined as a crime. The jury also had to consider whether convicting the defendants would interfere with the 4’s rights to freedom of thought, conscience and expression. A jury’s deliberations are not made public, but whether we agree or not, this jury made their decision.

The empty pedestal of the statue of Colston in Bristol. Image by C. Hobbs, CC licence 3,

Written by R. Wallis Jan 2022

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