Opinion: Court of Appeal upholds importance of social media in riot cases

This week (Tuesday, 18 October 2011) the Court of Appeal constituted by three of is most senior members, the Lord Chief Justice, the President of the Queen’s Bench Division and Lord Justice Leveson, gave judgment on ten cases arising out of the August riots.

Seven of the ten sentences were upheld including two where the offenders had committed their offences by posting on Facebook.

The LCJ began the judgment with a clear statement:

There can be very few decent members of our community who are unaware of and were not horrified by the rioting which took place all over the country between 6th August and 11th August 2011. For them, these were deeply disturbing times. The level of lawlessness was utterly shocking and wholly inexcusable.

On the objective of the court, he said the overwhelming issue was to deter others:

There is an overwhelming obligation on sentencing courts to do what they can to ensure the protection of the public, whether in their homes or in their businesses or in the street and to protect the homes and businesses and the streets in which they live and work. This is an imperative. It is not, of course, possible now, after the events, for the courts to protect the neighbourhoods which were ravaged in the riots or the people who were injured or suffered damage. Nevertheless, the imposition of severe sentences, intended to provide both punishment and deterrence, must follow. It is very simple. Those who deliberately participate in disturbances of this magnitude, causing injury and damage and fear to even the most stout-hearted of citizens, and who individually commit further crimes during the course of the riots are committing aggravated crimes. They must be punished accordingly, and the sentences should be designed to deter others from similar criminal activity.

The Facebook cases may be especially interesting to Lib Dem Voice readers. Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe were charged with “encouraging or assisting offences”. Blackshaw was given 4 years on a guilty plea (getting the standard one third credit, so he would have had 6 years after a trial) for promoting an event on Facebook, “Smash down in Northwick Town”. With the riots taking place in other towns he appealed to his friends to meet at a specified place and time saying, “we’ll need to get on this, kicking off all over.” He appealed for action by the “Mob Hill Massive” and encouraged people in general (the page was open to public view) to join in.

Members of the public posted messages indicating their disgust at what was proposed. The police posted on the wall of the event a warning that anyone going to take part would be arrested and this had the desired effect of preventing the public disorder that Blackshaw admitted he intended to create. It would appear that the availability of social media websites to the public and police actually prevented a riot rather than, as has been suggested of other riots at the time, enabling them to be organised.

Blackshaw was aged 21 with no previous convictions.

Sutcliffe pleaded guilty to having created a page on Facebook for “The Warrington Riots”. He invited 400 people to join him at a certain time and place. Police were tipped off and had the page removed. Any riot that might have occurred failed to take place as a result. Sutcliffe himself posted a message on the wall of the event, before the page was removed, that he was joking all along but the timing of this message satisfied the court that he only recanted after he was already aware that the police were looking for him.

47 people had indicated they would attend the event. Many more local residents had contacted the police, appealing for them to act to protect the community.

Sutcliffe was 22 with only one previous conviction, which was for possession of a class B drug. He claimed, improbably, that when he put the event on Facebook he was so drunk that he now had no recollection. He too was given 4 years on a guilty plea.

The Court of Appeal demonstrate that it understands the importance of social media and that there have a place alongside any more longstanding form of communication and organisation. The Lord Chief Justice said:

We are unimpressed with the suggestion that in each case the appellant did no more than make the appropriate entry in his Facebook. Neither went from door to door looking for friends or like minded people to join up with him in the riot. All that is true. But modern technology has done away with the need for such direct personal communication. It can all be done through Facebook or other social media. In other words, the abuse of modern technology for criminal purposes extends to and includes incitement of very many people by a single step. Indeed it is a sinister feature of these cases that modern technology almost
certainly assisted rioters in other places to organise the rapid movement and congregation of disorderly groups in new and unpoliced areas.

Both these sentences of 4 years were upheld. It is unlikely that these sentences will go to any further court. The Supreme Court deals only with cases where there is “a point of public importance”. In a criminal sentencing context that tends to mean the Supreme Court will hear appeals where there is an issue such as interpretation of a new statute on sentencing that may affect 1000s of future cases They will rarely agree to hear appeals on “this sentence was too long on the specific facts of this case.” I may be wrong. The Supreme Court might be urged by counsel that the context of the riots gives them inherent public importance.

I know that some people will have differing views about these sentences. Indeed, the appellants only won leave to appeal because a judge was satisfied that there was a reasonable argument to be explored that 4 years was too long. Many appellants fail at the leave stage every day in the Court of Appeal.

There are undoubtedly issues to be considered by the appropriate bodies on why the riots occurred, including whether we have produced a too materialistic culture of selfish and instant gratification that, in a few cases, persuaded people of previous good character to steal and destroy, setting aside their morals and forgetting their consideration for other people. Fascinating academic research could be done into the effect of these sentences on other young people and to what extent they do deter acts of disorder in future.

I imagine that all of us will welcome the proper recognition of by some of the most senior judges that social media are not trifling ephemera but an important part of daily life in our time.

Antony Hook is a barrister specialising in cases of serious economic crime.

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3 Comments

  • Jonathan da Silva 21st Oct '11 - 3:37pm

    I doubt they’d have got 4 months trying to organise actually people in a pub to riot. But use the social media with zero chance of success and judges cannot handle it. It’s even more laughable than when the guy said he was going to blow up an airport. What next conspiracy and attempted murder charges for people who threaten people verbally or do judges add 4 years to everything as an aggravating factor because the evil new fangled web was involved.

    In the end any one who plead guilty to anything immediately was a fool with a apathetic middle class turned pathetic as a few hundred million went up in flames. Their powerless found expression in the weak people who lead our main parties.

    I note that the yearly death toll from super bugs which are eminently preventable has led to no charges against Health Secretaries, Foundation managers or Regional Health Managers for corporate manslaughter. QE, de facto a blatant robbery of pensions and savings, can still happen even when it is known to have no positive effects. The Trillion Labour added to the National debt in 8 years will kill 1000s yet no one will not spend one night in jail.

    Really stupid idiots in this case who did not riot nor make much effort other than sounding off 4 years. Killing lots of people with depraved indifference or to get paid off out of power no charges.

    It’s quite ridiculous and shows the judiciary will not admit error no matter how stupid and egregious that error is.

  • Old Codger Chris 21st Oct '11 - 5:47pm

    These were serious offences but are they more serious than looting? I reckon one year would have been right.

  • “I doubt they’d have got 4 months trying to organise actually people in a pub to riot.”

    If they did it at a time when riots were acutally in progress across the country then I hope so! The context does add to the genuine threat that their postings would be read with.

    That said I have read reports (which may be wrong) of people pleading guilty to offences which require intention rather than recklessness – and then claiming in mitigation that they weren’t serious and it was only meant as a joke. I can’t see how that stacks up.

    @Chris – from some reports I read some of the people involved in “looting” were charged with lesser offences like criminal damage. Whilst they may have been involved in looting if there wasn’t evidence to back it up so that might explain the discrepancy.

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