Courts failed people ‘caught up’ in UK riots in 2011, says ex-chief prosecutor


Pressures in the criminal justice system meant it failed to distinguish between repeat offenders and people “caught up” in the 2011 English riots, a former chief prosecutor has said.

More than 2,000 people were convicted of riot-related offences with harsh sentences doled out. The average custodial sentence for riot-related cases was more than double compared with similar offences in 2010 in magistrates courts, while in crown courts it rose by three-quarters, according to Ministry of Justice analysis.

While the majority of defendants had previous convictions, more than a fifth did not. They included a student jailed for six months after pleading guilty to stealing bottles of water worth £3.50, and two men jailed for four years for inciting riots on Facebook, although no disorder occurred.

Nazir Afzal, chief crown prosecutor for the north-west at the time, said the swift response to rioting in Greater Manchester, including expediting cases from magistrates to crown courts, night sittings and “deterrent” sentences, helped quell disorder but blurred the distinction between organised criminals, prevalent in the disturbances, and first-time offenders.

“We have to treat people differently otherwise the system’s unfair and so there were people who I regret even having anything to do with,” said Afzal. “In a different atmosphere, in a different environment, they would have been diverted from the justice system altogether – given conditional discharges, probation, restorative justice, pay compensation. But they got rolled into everything else because we didn’t have resources.

“I mean 2011 was the beginning of austerity. I was tasked immediately on taking the role to reduce my budget by 25%, which meant I had to release lots of prosecutors, administrative staff. The police were doing the same, police stations were closing. So we just had to work with the limited resources we had and that meant that we were forced to apply the same rules to everybody and less discretion than we would have been able to exercise otherwise.”

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Afzal maintained that his staff did the best they could in the circumstances and said he never met anyone in the community who disagreed with the response.

Research suggests most of the public agree offences committed during riots support the imposition of harsher sentences and also the use of deterrent sentences in such circumstances, although support has also been demonstrated for non-custodial sentences for non-violent, riot-related offending.

Afzal said ultimately “sending somebody to prison is always a failure of a system … I can’t change the system that exists”.

Toby Wilbraham, a criminal defence solicitor at Olliers, in Manchester, recalled a court official telling him there was a governmental memo on how to deal with cases, although the judiciary denied yielding to political pressure.

“We know the judges fairly well at the courts and the way they dealt with cases changed quite considerably from how they would normally deal with them and they became more punitive and remanded people more often than they would have done before,” said Wilbraham.

Mitigation was said to be rare, despite the age of many defendants – around a quarter were 10-17 and a similar proportion 18-20 – with punitive sentences encouraging people to plead guilty.

Beth O’Reilly, a barrister in London, described the courts as like a “conveyor belt heading towards prison”, adding: “There were young people who may have dabbled in just minor, very low level stuff, but then found themselves being charged with really serious offences, riot, violent disorder, with disproportionately long sentences if convicted.”

Adrian Langdale QC, represented young rioters convicted for involvement in firebombing a Nottingham police station, after they had served their sentences. He said some “were caught up in the moment and the excitement of it and the adventure of it, perhaps not totally realising what was going to be the end result … And some of those unfortunately having tasted fairly lengthy prison sentences have, when they’ve been released, gone on to organised crime.

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“I’ve represented an individual who was released and has since been convicted of a shooting, I’ve been involved with one who was released and involved in large scale drug supply.”

Langdale secured one of the few acquittals in riot-related cases as did now-retired London barrister Terry Munyard, who nevertheless remains angry at the harsh sentencing.

“Nicking something very minor should not see you in prison,” he said. “I think people’s individual circumstances weren’t taken sufficient account of because the state – in the form of the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service), the police and judges – wanted to try to stop further uprisings of oppressed members of the public.”



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