By Fiona Bawdon
Is a Tottenham solicitor alone in having clients charged as part of riots, despite them having no connection other than being in the same borough?
The courts are treating some offenders as riot cases, even though their crimes were committed miles away from the scene of any disorder, according to a leading defence solicitor.
James Nichol, a solicitor based in Tottenham, says he is representing people who are being “charged as part of the riots, simply because their offences were committed in the borough where riots were taking place”.
Nichol’s firm was on the police station duty rota the night the riots started and he is sceptical of figures released last week showing that more than 17,000 people had been charged with riot-related offences. He says this figure is distorted by the inclusion of offenders such as his clients who were nowhere near the riots, but who are nonetheless being punished as if they were part of the disorder. Nichol adds that statistics showing three-quarters of rioters had a previous conviction are also misleading: a client of his had a “previous conviction” for using a child’s bus ticket.
As the Guardian has reported previously, the courts certainly are punishing riot defendants far more harshly than would otherwise be the case. Two-thirds of them are being held on remand, compared with just 10% of defendants charged with indictable offences in 2010, according to the Ministry of Justice. Magistrates are sending people to prison for twice as long as they did for similar offences last year (5.1 months, compared with 2.5 months). A memo obtained by the Guardian following a freedom of information request revealed magistrates were urged to disregard normal practice and refer even minor riot-related offences to the crown court for sentence.
Nichol says riot penalties are being imposed on offenders just because they were in the same postcode as the disorder. Cases he has seen include a man arrested for carrying a baseball bat on the night when rioting broke out elsewhere in the borough, and an 18-year-old who attempted to break into a shop which was about an hour’s walk from the nearest disorder.
“People are no longer being sentenced for the offence; they are being sentenced for the riot,” he says.
Colleagues of Nichol’s share his concern. One said young adults in particular are “being hammered” by the courts. Tony Edwards, who works in east London, says the problem is not that courts are going above the sentencing guidelines in riot cases, but that they have torn them up altogether. “The sentences we are seeing bear no relation to anything else at all.” Magistrates are remanding people in custody for the most minor offences – such as a man charged with carrying an offensive weapon for having a dog lead.
Edwards, who was a member of the now defunct Sentencing Guidelines Council, says the current Sentencing Council “missed an opportunity” by not calling an emergency meeting to draw up new guidance to deal with riot cases.
Instead, experienced defence solicitors such as Edwards and Nichol say courts are “making it up as they go along”.
Solicitors are hopeful, if not optimistic, that normal service may be resumed after next week when the appeal court is due to hear 10 cases challenging riot sentences.