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'Overwhelming obligation' on courts to protect the public, LCJ says

18 October 2011

There is an "overwhelming obligation" on the courts to protect the public, the Lord Chief Justice has said, giving the Court of Appeal's long-awaited judgment on ten appeals against sentences imposed after August's riots.

The Court of Appeal rejected appeals by two men who attempted to incite a riot on Facebook and by five people convicted of burglary, though it reduced the terms of three others for dishonest handling.

“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,” Lord Judge said. “This is an imperative.”

Delivering sentence on behalf of the court in R v Blackshaw and others [2011] EWCA Crim 2312, the Lord Chief Justice said the context of the riots “hugely aggravates the seriousness of each individual offence”.

He said the court endorsed the observations of Judge Gilbart QC, the Recorder of Manchester, that the nature of the riots took the offences “completely outside the usual context of criminality” and he agreed with Judge Gilbart that they were “altogether different” from what happened in Bradford in 2001 (see, 17 August 2011).

However Lord Judge said it was “inappropriate for Crown Court judges to issue, or to appear to be issuing, sentencing guidelines”.

On the impact of the riots, he noted that they resulted in the cancellation of a friendly football match between England and Holland.

Lord Judge went on: “The story of the public disorder in this country had a vast international dimension. Television films of London burning were seen throughout the world.

“We have no doubt that they were a source of incredulity abroad as they were at home, and of considerable dismay among those who retain affection for this country.”

Turning to the cases of Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, who attempted to incite riots in Warrington and Northwich through posts on Facebook and were sentenced to four years each at Chester Crown Court, the LCJ said:

“In any event the fact that no rioting occurred in the streets of Northwich or Warrington owed nothing to either appellant.

“The reality was that armed with information from members of the public who were disturbed at the prospect, the police were able to interfere and bring the possibility of riot to an end.”

Lord Judge said the court was unimpressed with the suggestion that in each case the appellant did no more than make the appropriate entry in his Facebook.

He said the modern technology had “done away with the need” for the two men to go from door to door looking for friends to join a riot.

“It can all be done through Facebook or other social media,” Lord Judge said. “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 is 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.”

The two Facebook appeals were dismissed, along with five others for burglary. The first three burglary sentences were imposed by the Recorder of Manchester, the remaining two by Wood Green and Inner London Crown Courts. Sentences in the three dishonest handling cases, all of which were reduced, were imposed by Manchester Crown Court, two of them by Judge Gilbart.

Sir John Thomas, president of the Queen’s Bench Division, and Lord Justice Levenson sat alongside Lord Judge.

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