Tag Archives: Celtic

John Wilson – 8 Months For Not Assaulting Neil Lennon – Why It’s Fair That He Is Now Free

John Wilson, convicted by a jury of breach of the peace at the Hearts v Celtic match in May, and controversially acquitted of the charge of assaulting Neil Lennon, appeared at Edinburgh Sheriff Court today for sentencing.

Sheriff Fiona Reith, who had presided at the trial, passed a sentence of 8 months imprisonment, backdated to the date of his first court appearance on 12th May. Mr Wilson has spent all that time in custody, not having been granted bail, and therefore under the rule whereby a convicted person is released after serving one half of a “short” sentence, as this is, he will now be a free man.

Sheriff Reith’s sentencing statement is carried in full on the excellent Scottish Judiciary website. The link is here.

The Sheriff noted the terms of the charge of which Mr Wilson had been convicted, namely that “On 11 May 2011 at Tynecastle Football Stadium, Edinburgh, you John Clark Wilson did conduct yourself in a disorderly manner, run onto the field of play during the period of a designated sporting event, run at the away team dug out, shout, swear, all to the alarm and annoyance of others and thereby causing further disturbance within the crowd there and commit a breach of peace”.

The charge of which he was acquitted and the alleged religious aggravation which was removed by the jury from the breach of the peace charge are irrelevant to the Sheriff’s decision on sentence.

Sheriff Reith referred to the “poisonous” atmosphere at the match, as spoken to by witnesses, and described the evidence of one of the police officers who feared a pitch invasion following Mr Wilson’s actions.

The Sheriff stated “A breach of the peace can sometimes be a quite minor crime but sometimes it is not.  In this case it was not minor at all; it was serious, and with serious potential consequences in the context of what was already a highly volatile atmosphere in the crowd of over 16,000 football supporters.”

After commenting favourably on the Social Work reports regarding Mr Wilson, and noting his remorse which she took as genuine, she went on to say “However, in all the circumstances, I take the view that the nature and gravity of the offence is such that no disposal other than custody would be appropriate in relation to this offence.  It has to be clearly understood by you and others that this sort of behaviour will not be tolerated and will be punished, and punished firmly, by the courts.” (Emphasis added)

She noted that the early offer to plead guilty to the charge of which he was convicted (and indeed it is understood that Mr Wilson offered to plead guilty to both charges but without the religious aggravation on either) meant that she discounted what would have been a 12 month sentence to an 8 month sentence.

In addition a Football Banning Order was issued against Mr Wilson, a power which had been noted recently, was being little used by the courts.

Is it coincidence that the sentence imposed happens to mean that Mr Wilson is now released? I am sure that played no part in the Sheriff’s decision.

However it would be hoped that the clear comments made by Sheriff Reith, as highlighted above, and the fact that, at the top line, Mr Wilson would have received a 12 month sentence for breach of the peace if not for his early plea offer, will allay concerns that had been expressed that in some way, the jury’s verdict made it “open season” for people to try to emulate Mr Wilson.

Anyone at a football match who is thinking about encroaching from the spectating area with aggressive intent, whether with or without religious, racial or other aggravating features, is looking at a custodial sentence in future, I suspect, if they allow their exuberance to get the better of them.

I am sure that there will still be disquiet about the jury’s verdict here and the rules preventing discussion with jurors preclude us from knowing why they decided what they did.

I am equally sure that some people will express anger that Mr Wilson has now “walked free” even though he has been in custody for the last four months, and has had his picture shown in the media across the nation. This seems to be a very fair sentence passed by an experienced and wise Sheriff, who had the advantage of hearing all the evidence in court.

Indeed whilst drafting this post, I have already seen tweets commenting on how ridiculous it is that Mr Wilson is free now. As I thought these seem to miss the point that he has been in prison since mid May.

It is of course open to the defence to appeal if they consider that the sentence was unduly severe. I am sure that they would not do so.

The Crown could appeal on the basis that the sentence was unduly lenient. In light of the public statement by the Lord Advocate regarding the case, prior to sentencing, one wonders if the Crown might consider this, on the basis that the High Court would then get to have their say and effectively set the bar for these offences.

I should say that, as far as I can see, the sentence is perfectly fair and I would be surprised if (a) there was any appeal and (b) if the High Court made any change to the sentence.

If Mr Wilson had been convicted of assault or had had the religious aggravation added, then it is clear that his sentence would have been harsher. The Sheriff has done the justice system a service, I feel, by doing her job of considering all the relevant matters, disregarding the irrelevant, and pronouncing a fair disposal.

I suspect that there might be many though who will disagree!

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What Does the Neil Lennon Case Tell Us about the Issues of Sectarianism and Anti-Catholicism in Scotland?

Reader “Henry Clarson” made some detailed and thoughtful comments on my earlier post, so I thought it best to put them up as a separate piece, with my thoughts below.

Thanks Henry for taking the time and trouble to contribute!

 

Comment by Henry Clarson

Paul, I’ve read both of your Neil Lennon articles and also the one by Chris Fyffe. I don’t question for a moment that both of you are acting in good faith and are trying your best to learn from this case as well as avoid knee-jerk reactions.
I fear, however, that you’re asking too many of the wrong questions in the hope that the answers you find will be other than the fundamental one which is staring everybody in the face.

How many mature democracies have such a problem with sectarianism that they still need to discuss introducing specific legislation to address that issue in 2011? Scotland and where else?
In how many democracies in the Western world is the abolition of Catholic schools relentlessly debated at every level of society?
Notwithstanding imperfections in the current legislation, why is that the overwhelming majority of hate crime victims come from a minority group, namely, Catholics?
Mr McBride referred at the end of his Newsnight interview to jurors who can full of prejudices. If anything, he is understating the likelihood. In a sectarian society, it would be astonishing if it proved to be otherwise.

Lawyers and legal professionals can have all the intellectual discussions they want. At ground level, where I dwell, if I were giving evidence in court against a sectarian thug who had assaulted me I might have confidence in the prosecutor’s determination to secure a conviction. I might be prepared to believe that the judge would ensure that the law was scrupulously followed. I could even accept that the law itself had been framed by public-spirited legislators to protect ordinary people from harm. However, I would be wondering how many of the jurors would, in normal everyday life, curl a lip at someone entering a chapel or narrow their eyes at the sight of an acquaintance wearing a green tee-shirt. It might not matter when the verdict came in but it would nonetheless be a consideration.

The fact is that a great many people in this sad, nasty, wee country were pleased that Neil Lennon’s assailant got off with the assault charge. A great many more were not nearly as surprised by the verdict as has been made out. Some spoke of their ‘surprise’ but what they really meant was that they were disgusted, angry, sickened, deflated or in despair. It’s shocking and shameful but not much more ‘surprising’ than the routine scandal of a law-abiding black person being stopped and searched by the institutionally racist Met.

Not everyone who lives in Scotland is anti-Catholic, anti-Irish, anti-Celtic and anti-Neil Lennon but I would have no problem rounding up eight of them who would have delivered the same verdict that the jurors in Edinburgh returned. I could do that every day of the week for the rest of my life. McBride is quite right to bring up the issue of prejudice. It is the glaringly obvious reality from which every other debate is a digression.

 

 

My Thoughts in Response

What I was doing, and what Chris Fyffe was too, I think, was trying to address the specific circumstances of the John Wilson case. How could the court system possibly clear a man of a charge when literally thousands of people have seen the “assault” on television, on the Internet, and in the newspaper pictures? From time to time there are cases which shake public confidence in the “justice” system – and I feel that it helps if there are people who can make some comment to try to explain what happened.

As I have said in everything I’ve written about this case, the verdict of not guilty on the assault charge was a great surprise to me, but as Chris Fyffe pointed out, once the specifics of the charge, together with what little evidence was reported, are considered, it is possible to see where the jury (or at least eight of them) were coming from. Were they right to do so? They heard the whole case, evidence and legal submissions, and one should always be wary about criticising a court decision based on the evidence if one was not in court to hear it, or if one has not read a full transcript of the case.

Henry’s comment looks much wider than the specifics of the case. It can be true that those with a legal background might be more focussed on the particularities of a case, rather than upon the generalities. Usually, as here, there is a reason for doing so, partly because, when it comes to the debate on the wider issue of sectarianism in Scotland, there are many people far better qualified than I am to discuss it.

Before offering my view on the generalities, I would say the following about the specific issues Henry raises to make my views clear. (In response to one of the earlier pieces, I was labelled a “Hun apologist” on Twitter!)

 

1                    There is no doubt that there is a serious problem with what is labelled “sectarianism” in Scotland, especially in the West.

2                    It has been described by the First Minister as “Scotland’s shame” and as a “cancer” upon our society, and the Scottish Ministers are pledged to reduce and eliminate it.

3                    The furore about the incidents last season, and the proposed new football related legislation in the summer made it clear that, throughout Scottish society there was an apparent recognition of the problem and a stated desire to act to remedy it. The issue was how best to do so.

4                    The most common victims of “sectarian” offences are those perceived to be associated with Roman Catholicism.

5                    There are repeated efforts to attack the Catholic education system, which is wrongly blamed for promoting “sectarianism” even though many non-Catholic parents prefer to send their children to such schools, rather than to non-denominational ones.

6                    Jurors are human beings. They will have prejudices. The court system is designed, as far as possible, to eliminate these prejudices from jury verdicts.

7                    I agree that there will be some who welcome this verdict and who see this, in some warped way, as carte blanche to try to emulate Mr Wilson (although I suspect that when he is finally sentenced for his breach of the peace, people might react with surprise about how severe a punishment a court can, and will, impose for that crime).

8                    Are there people in Scotland prejudiced against Catholics, Irish people, Celtic fans and Neil Lennon? (which is not to say that those categories are always related – they are not) Of course there are.

9                    Is there a perception that, in the same way that Rangers are alleged always to benefit from support within the football authorities, the Scottish State is biased against Catholics? Yes, there is. As the saying goes, just because you are paranoid, it doesn’t mean they are not out to get you!

10                I grew up in Coatbridge, and even there, with its Catholic reputation, the problems of sectarianism were apparent, whether involving Celtic and Rangers or, on a lesser scale, Albion Rovers and Airdrieonians. Noticeably, in my day, the problems between school pupils did not relate to whether their were of a different demonination – being a different school was enough.

 

As I said, there are many better able to debate these matters than me, but I hope I can offer something from a legal background which might be of value (or indeed might not).

 

There is no doubt that there are tensions present in Scotland which are categorised under the heading of “sectarianism”. Anyone who suggests differently is wrong. But we need to look at how that manifests itself.

The majority of “sectarian” offences, as defined, seem to be committed in connection with football. This may relate to offences at or near the football ground, at or near a pub or club showing a game, or based upon someone wearing what is taken by someone else to be the “wrong” colours.

The law has recognised that there are certain matters categorised as “hate-crimes”. As an aside that always seems a rather Orwellian term, and not in a good way, but it is what those in authority use to describe these matters.

Specifically, in relation to sectarianism, we are talking about religion. The present law is laid down in the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003 section 74  titled “Offences aggravated by religious prejudice”.

Subsection 2 states:-

“For the purposes of this section, an offence is aggravated by religious prejudice if—(a)at the time of committing the offence or immediately before or after doing so, the offender evinces towards the victim (if any) of the offence malice and ill-will based on the victim’s membership (or presumed membership) of a religious group, or of a social or cultural group with a perceived religious affiliation; or(b)the offence is motivated (wholly or partly) by malice and ill-will towards members of a religious group, or of a social or cultural group with a perceived religious affiliation, based on their membership of that group.”

The use of the term “Fenian b######” as Mr Wilson was alleged to have shouted, was considered by the Appeal Court in Walls v Procurator Fiscal, Kilmarnock [2009] HCJAC 59 where the court rejected Donald Findlay QC’s argument that the use of the word “Fenian” was a comment regarding politics, whereby his client had been referring to the “Fenian Brotherhood, a political society, set up originally in America in the 1850s, to bring about the independence of Ireland.”

The Appeal Court rejected this, stating “The Court does not accept that the appellant was referring to members of the American brotherhood formed in the 1850s. It is within judicial knowledge that the term “Fenian” is used by a certain section of the population to describe a person either of Irish ancestry or even a person of the Roman Catholic faith, whether of Irish ancestry or not. Coupled with the derogatory term “bastard”, this is either an expression of religious prejudice or racial bigotry or both.”

As a side issue, it is interesting that, in Mr Wilson’s case, the aggravation was not libelled as a racial one, as it was for Mr Walls, even though Neil Lennon is notably Irish!

What we find is that the authorities are treating supporters of, for example, Celtic Football Club as being members or presumed members of a “social or cultural group with a perceived religious affiliation”. In such a case abuse of a Celtic fan (or indeed of a Celtic manager), becomes a “religious” aggravation. Whilst football is very important to many, and some go as far as to refer to it as a religion, the fact is that football and religion are not synonymous. Rangers fans are not necessarily Protestants; Celtic fans not necessarily Catholics.

 

In an alternate universe, Celtic and Rangers might be disbanded. This would not solve the “sectarian” issue overnight, but undoubtedly would take some of the heat out of the tensions which exist. There have been problems between Protestant and Catholic in Scotland since the Reformation, but now the “badge” of each side seems to be the support of the appropriate football team.

But, for many reasons, and rightly so, Celtic and Rangers are here to stay (the HMRC involvement in Rangers’ financial affairs permitting). I don’t imagine that many of the people shouting vile abuse at the other side on a Saturday are in their place in the pews in the Kirk or Chapel on a Sunday. Yet these football hatreds are classified as “religious”.

 

One of the problems with the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill, the most recent effort to solve this problem, is the linking, I think, of football and religion.

Footballing hatred does not sit exactly on top of religious hatred in the relevant Venn diagram, but the approach to these matters seems to assume that they do.

Trying to squeeze circumstances into the guise of an “offence religiously aggravated” when it involves references to old political bodies, or even more ancient battles, such as the Battle of the Boyne, creates the problems exemplified by the Wilson case. The issue about whether he called Neil Lennon a “Fenian b######” which would have been a religious aggravation or as he claimed a “f##### w#####” which would not, seems bizarre. The bottom line was that the man attacked Neil Lennon and caused a breach of the peace, potentially inciting a riot. The linkage of football rivalry to religious has caused the stushie we have seen in recent days.

If then we are not to disband one, other or both of the Old Firm, how might the problems be addressed?

Parliament can make clear that offences are worse if they take place in particular places, or involving particular people. An example is the legislation protecting emergency workers.

Let our MSP’s forget about bundling football and religion together. Bring in specific legislation indicating that offences in connection with football can be treated more severely by the courts, due to the knock on effects on other “supporters”. Remove the references to hatred of specific groups from the proposed legislation. Let the Procurator Fiscal prosecute without the restrictions placed on him by the classification of the mater as a “hate crime.”

Other action to deal with perceived “religious” hatreds, such as greater ability for local authorities and the police to restrict, re-route or prevent marches which are likely to cause disorder, are already in place.

The curse of alcohol related violence at football was greatly reduced by the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act in 1980.

Perhaps a focus on specific football related crimes for a period, would clear some of the nonsense away, and let us see precisely what specific problems of religious hatred remain. We need a clear sight of the problem to give the country the best chance of solving it.

Taking action to strip away the “respectability” with which football seems to cloak sectarianism, and laying the issue out starkly, would give our nation the best chance of solving the problem and lifting the curse!

 

 

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Some More Thoughts Re the Neil Lennon’s Case – by Me @ Scotzine.Com

Scotzine.com is a comprehensive website covering all aspects of Scottish football.

 

In response to a piece by Joanne Lennie earlier today regarding the layperson’s view of the acquittal of John Wilson on the assault charge   I penned a few thoughts in the hope of clarifying and expanding upon various points.

Think of this as a follow on from my earlier posts about the John Wilson case. I think it’s worth a read (but then I wrote it!)

You will find it on the Scotzine site here.

Once you’ve read it, hang around and take in other stuff on the site. Well worth your time.

Thank you!

I will see you back here for the densely written and esoteric legal stuff soon!

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Neil Lennon Was Not Assaulted by the Man Who Admitted Assaulting Him!

Lawyers are often sceptical of media reports of court cases where the media express shock at the decision of a judge or jury. The view amongst the legal profession is that, without having seen and heard all of the evidence, and legal submissions in the case, one cannot offer a properly informed opinion. It is generally not especially constructive to comment upon a court case based only upon the limited reports of proceedings in the newspapers and on television.

However, every once in a while there comes a case where even lawyers will say “What the @#%* happened there??!!”

One such reached a verdict today, in the case against John Wilson, heard before a jury at Edinburgh Sheriff Court. Mr Wilson faced charges that, at a Hearts v Celtic match last season, he had assaulted Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager, and had caused a breach of the peace “by conducting himself in a disorderly manner, running onto the field during the match, running at the away team dug out, shouting, swearing, making a sectarian remark, all to the alarm and annoyance of others and causing further disturbance within the crowd” and that both offences were aggravated by religious prejudice.

The jury returned a verdict of guilty on the charge of breach of the peace, with the sectarian element removed, and not proven on the assault charge.

Bearing in mind that the incident had been seen by several thousand spectators at the ground, by hundreds of thousands on television, and by large numbers on the Internet, it seemed astonishing that Mr Wilson was contesting the charges at all!

That surprise however was overtaken by shock at the jury’s verdict. How could this happen?

 

The “perverse” jury is an age old phenomenon.  John Liliburne was acquitted by a jury in 1649 on a charge of High Treason for his opposition to Oliver Cromwell, despite the clear direction of the court that he should be convicted. In Bushel’s Case in 1670  Edward Bushel had previously been a juror in the trail of the Quakers’ founder, William Penn. The jury had returned a verdict with which the judge had disagreed. The judge proceeded to “punish” the jurors, imprisoning and fining them. Bushel stood against this, and it was ruled that a jury could not be punished for the verdict it returned.

Even in recent years, such as in the case of Clive Ponting,  who had admitted passing on “secrets” to Tam Dalyell, MP, juries have stood against what they consider to be oppressive behaviour by the State. Mr Ponting was effectively guilty of a “Strict liability” offence under the Official Secrets Act 1911. The judge at his trial in 1985 was minded to take the case out of the jury’s hands as no legal defence existed. However the prosecution, perhaps concerned by political implications of a conviction without the jury “rubber stamping” the verdict, insisted that the matter should be put to them. Despite directions that there was no defence, the jury acquitted Mr Ponting.

It might seem strange to cite these important cases in connection with that of Mr Wilson. This, at first, seems more akin to a recent case before a jury in a Scottish court where the accused faced two charges. The Sheriff directed that he could be convicted of either, or of none, but not of both. After long consideration, the jury returned to court to seek the Sheriff’s assistance. Could they convict the man on both charges, as that was what they were minded to do? The Sheriff repeated the direction that it was one conviction, or none. After a further short break, and as the clock ticked past 5.30pm, the jury returned. A “Not Proven” verdict was delivered on both charges! The legal process puts itself in peril if it prevents a Scottish jury getting its dinner on time!

 

Already the theories regarding Mr Wilson’s jury being packed with Hearts’ fans or Rangers’ fans are doing the rounds. But comments by David Nicolson, Mr Wilson’s excellent defence counsel, seem perhaps to make the mystery clearer. He is quoted as having said in court that his client had earlier been willing to plead guilty to breach of the peace and assault under deletion of making a sectarian remark and being aggravated by religious prejudice, but the Crown had not accepted his plea.

On that basis, as an acceptable plea could not be agreed, the case had to proceed to trial.

From the evidence reported, it seems that there was only one witness who spoke in support of the “sectarian remark” allegation. As a consequence it could be argued that there was never any prospect of a conviction on that basis, and the jury, it would appear, seemed to decide to “punish” the prosecution by not convicting the man for an assault he had effectively admitted!

 

Why would the prosecution have taken such a stance, with the consequences it appears to have had?

As has been made repeatedly clear by successive Scottish administrations, there are certain types of criminal offence which are of particular concern and which the police and prosecuting authorities focus on stamping out. Offences motivated by prejudice, such as those aggravated by racial or sectarian hatred, domestic violence, and knife crime are all areas where the decision has been taken that extra effort is required to reduce, or even end, these blights on our society.

As a result, prosecutors have been given ever more strict guidelines as to how to deal with cases where there is one of these elements alleged to play a part. This can mean that prosecutors no longer have discretion, on a local basis, to remove such a part of a charge, without clearance from Crown Office in Edinburgh.

 

The net effect, as we see here with Mr Wilson, is that cases go to trial which really ought not to, and verdicts are arrived at which, frankly, make the Scottish justice system look ridiculous. The jury’s decision vindicates that plea of not guilty tendered by Mr Wilson’s legal team.

To an extent, one can sympathise with the Crown Office who must feel that they are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. Only last week they were criticised  for not acknowledging a racial element in the killing of Mr Simon San.

 

However, it is clear amongst criminal defence lawyers that the approach taken by the Crown Office regarding these matters has resulted in verdicts which seem perverse, with victims having to give evidence in cases where they really ought not to have to, and to substantial additional costs in terms of court expense and Legal Aid. One of the vital elements of the Scottish criminal justice system has always been the discretion given to each local Procurator Fiscal, often deciding how to deal with cases “in the public interest” having taken account of local circumstances and conditions. A “one size fits all” approach is not the best here, I feel.

And also the insistence on the part of the Crown that the religious/sectarian aggravations stayed as part of the charges simply confirms what the late Sheriff John Fitzsimons discussed many years ago at a session for Dumbarton Faculty solicitors, where he was speaking about the difference between “racially aggravated offences” and “offences racially aggravated”. These “hate crime” aggravations have now been extended to other areas, as mentioned above, but the late Sheriff felt that these semantic distinctions, which were important as far as disposal of a case was concerned, were confusing enough for the Sheriffs, never mind the jurors who might be required to consider them in serious cases.

 

The chickens have come home to roost today and Mr Wilson has benefited, as far as his verdict goes anyway, from the apparent insistence of the Crown to have a sectarian element attached to his conviction, perhaps especially as this incident formed part of the shameful sequence of events surrounding football earlier this year which caused the SNP Ministers to promote the flawed Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill and had the First Minister referring to the “cancer” of sectarianism.

We now have a man who undoubtedly was guilty of an assault, aggravated by the circumstances in which it took place, cleared of that offence. This makes the campaign against the curse of sectarianism seem lacklustre.

 

Hopefully it will not provoke the Justice Secretary into deciding that the Bill referred to above should be revised to make it easier to gain such convictions.

Instead it would be better if the level of Procurator Fiscal independence, within the Crown Office framework as was the case of old, could be restored.

If not, I suspect we will see continuing cases where apparently ridiculous verdicts are returned, and whilst this is a good thing for newspapers and bloggers with space to fill, it undermines and demeans the whole justice system.

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