Charge !!

On the 11th January, Edward Woollard was convicted of violent disorder and sentenced to 32 months in prison for throwing a fire extinguisher from the top of a building during the student protests. The reactions to the decision were many and passionate, generally in relation to the judges’ admission that by sentencing Mr Woollard he was hoping to “send[…] out a very clear message to anyone minded to behave in this way that an offence of this seriousness will not be tolerated.

It is not the subject of this blog, or at least not of this particular blog post, to discuss the length of the sentence, which is by and large within the range of the offence for which Mr Woollard was sentenced, or whether it was appropriate.

Another question which was raised, and which is more closely related to the subject of this post, is whether or not Mr Woollard should have been judged for attempted murder rather than violent disorder, as was called for before his arrest by a senior police officer.

From a legal perspective, the issue that I want to discuss in this post is in relation to what offence he was accused of and why…


Violent Disorder is a criminal offence established in the Public Order Act 1986, section 2. The sentence is a maximum of 5 years when judged in the Crown Court as it was here (if the case is not as serious, it can be judged in the Magistrates Court, and the maximum sentence is then 6 months or a fine and there is no jury.)

So, first of all, what is a charge in criminal law?

To charge someone with an offence means that the Crown Prosecution Service, who represents the Crown and therefore the public, will have decided what particular crime  in the criminal law best fits the action of the accused. Once they have decided what ‘label’ to apply, their role is to go to the court and present the facts and evidence they have to convince the judge (and jury if there is one) that the accused is guilty of that crime.

Sometimes, this decision about what offence to charge is clear and easy. If you shoot someone in the head after shouting ‘I want to kill you’, you will be charged with murder, or if you break into someone’s house and steal their TV, you will be charged with burglary. But more often, it won’t automatically be clear what offence to charge and whether there should be a charge at all.

When that’s the case, it’s for the CPS to decide if and what charge there should be. As their website puts it: The role of the Service is to prosecute cases firmly, fairly and effectively when there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction and when it is in the public interest to do so. So the decision has to be made according to various factors, which brings us to our second question:

How is a charge decided?

One of the first and most important factors will be the evidence available to the prosecution. Each offence is defined in the law by a number of elements, which all have to be proved ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ by the prosecution. For example, to convict someone of murder you have to prove an intention to kill or cause serious harm to someone. If you shoot someone in the head, the fact that you put a gun to someone’s head and pulled the trigger will be a good way to prove that you wanted to kill them. If on the other hand you shot in the dark at someone running away from you and you’re a bad shot then it will be harder to prove that intention…

In the case of Edward Woollard, was there, as some suggested, enough evidence to charge him with attempted murder?

Although for murder you have to prove an intention to kill or cause very serious harm, for attempted murder, you have to prove an intention to bring the result about, ie an intention to kill. In Mr Woollard’s case, it seems highly unlikely that the prosecution could prove that he intended that death would happen, and so he probably couldn’t be charged with attempted murder.

The second factor taken into account when making a decision to accuse someone of a particular crime is whether or not it is “in the public interest”. For example, patients with incurable illness have been asking for a promise from the CPS that they wouldn’t charge their relatives with a criminal offence if they helped them to die. The CPS stopped short of promising this but did mention that it would only prosecute someone if they thought it was in the public interest, which will not often be the case.

Finally another factor in the decision is the process of plea bargaining. It allows someone accused of crime to plead either guilty or not guilty at the beginning of his trial and therefore decide the course of his trial. If he pleads ‘not guilty’, he chooses to go through a full trial in order to decide if he is, in fact, not guilty. If he pleads guilty, he will not have to sit through a trial but will be convicted of the offence charged and sentenced for it. The fact that an accused pleads guilty can reduce his sentence, especially if he decides to do so early on, and he can also be charged with a less serious crime to encourage him to plead guilty.

The justification for this system is that:

  • it rewards the accused for owning up to his act,
  • it saves time and money to the justice system, and
  • it allows the CPS to show that it is bringing criminals to justice efficiently and diligently.

In this case, Edward Woollard pleaded guilty to violent disorder according to section 2 of the Public Disorder Act 1986 and his punishment was therefore reduced, especially as he pleaded guilty very early on. The fact that his mother pushed him to own up and give himself up to the police and supported him throughout the trial was praised by the judge and might have played a part in the decision of the CPS about what offence to charge him with. In any case, it shows that the criminal justice process might be based on strict rules but also leaves space for the procedure to adapt to the circumstances of each case…

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  1. June 24th, 2011

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