Time for a review of the justice system?

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Amanda Jacks is the FSF's caseworker, and offers advice and assistance to individual fans who come to the FSF with all manner of policing and stewarding related complaints. Here she recounts a recent court visit on behalf of a fan who'd been erroneously arrested at a game. 

Back in February, I took a call from a Grimsby Town supporter, Mark, who’d travelled down to Barnet for a midweek game with his usual group of match going friends. Mark is a professional man in his 30s and suffice to say he was incredibly distraught. Until the final whistle it was an unremarkable game, Grimsby had lost 2-1 but a good night had been had by all. Making his way off the terrace, Mark was grabbed by the arm by a steward and asked to accompany him to a group of police officers. With no real idea what this was about but suspecting nothing untoward, Mark willingly went with this steward.

After a brief conversation, Mark was told that he was under arrest. A steward had reported him to the police for shouting, at a player who’d fallen, “get up you ****ing gay ****”. So shocked was he at this allegation, his legs buckled and he sank to the ground. When he’d recovered, he was handcuffed and taken by police car to the police station where he was held for approximately four hours, questioned at half past midnight, charged with aggravated Section 5 Public Order and released on conditional bail. Throughout the short interview Mark vehemently denied shouting this comment. The only evidence against him was the steward’s statement. There was no CCTV and no other witnesses had come forward to substantiate the stewards allegation, nor had any effort been made to find other witnesses. The player on the receiving end of this supposed comment? Well, nobody identified him either!

Mark was now in a system – the Criminal Justice System – that was completely and utterly alien to him. Like many of the supporters we assist, this was the first time Mark had been charged with a criminal offence, he had no idea what to expect and was beside himself with worry at not only the stigma of the charge but other implications such as the thought of what his family, close friends and employers would think. In fact, they all stood loyally by him and it was their support that got him through the next few months.

Part of the advice I gave Mark was to get character references and to save any comments he’d made on social media that reflected his character and views on discrimination and homophobia. Two of his referees were close friends, a lesbian couple in a civil partnership. The speed with which the references followed is indicative of Mark’s character and how keen people were to assist him.

A court date of June 10th was set. Despite best endeavours by his solicitor, Melanie Cooke, to get the charges dropped by the CPS (citing flaws over timing, the description of Mark in the stewards statement and lack of any other evidence) they were satisfied that there was a realistic chance of conviction and the trial went ahead. Accompanied by two of his friends who were due to appear as defence witnesses and his partner, Mark travelled down to London having had two sleepless nights. Melanie had instructed barrister Alison Gurden to act as counsel.

The first prosecution witness was the steward. Under cross examination Alison picked his account apart; for example, the steward stated he could clearly hear Mark shouting these words over the noise of the crowd from 12 feet away but failed throughout to notice what distinguished Mark from others in terms of his clothing and physical build. Further, the steward contradicted himself over the timings and his position in relation to Mark's on the terrace. The second witness called by the Crown was the arresting officer who, since he was not in the ground for much of the game and therefore didn’t hear the supposed comment, was only able to confirm that he actually arrested Mark and one or two other minor details.

It was then Mark’s turn to give evidence. Despite getting emotional at one stage – and who could blame him – he was an excellent witness. As part of his defence against the charge he told the court how he’d been on a Gay Pride rally in the States while on holiday there. The prosecutor, who really had nothing to work with, could only put it to him that he had indeed said what he was accused of.

After Mark stepped down and before calling Mark’s witnesses, the District Judge declared that he was acquitted. From what he’d heard and seen he was satisfied that Mark was an innocent man of good character. Halting proceedings so the witnesses could be brought into court to hear what he had to say, the Judge proceeded to explain his reasons for the acquittal and concluded by saying that this case was a good example of the Criminal Justice System working properly.

Of course it isn’t for the FSF to call into question what an eminent Judge has to say about a trial, but having been involved in this case from the start, I would strongly suggest it’s a poor example of the workings of the justice system. On the strength of what one man thought he had heard, an ordinary, decent man has gone through some of the worst months of his life. It’s not unusual, however, for charges to be brought against football fans on the basis of an allegation from a single fan or steward alone. If instructed, solicitors can highlight fundamental flaws in the case; it is troubling that nonetheless the CPS feel that there is still a realistic prospect of conviction and proceed to court.

Despite the acquittal, the arrest will be recorded and demonstrated by the authorities as evidence that they are fighting homophobia and other forms of discrimination. Mark’s fingerprints, DNA and photograph will be kept on police file by the Met and no doubt information about his case shared with his home police force and club. Perhaps it is time for a review?