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Kate Parker
Kate Parker

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Welcome to the 5PB Blog where you can find comments and thoughts on current legal topics.

Post-Brexit hate crime: causation, correlation and charging decisions

In the wake of the EU referendum, there has been a sharp spike in reports of hate crime.[1] True Vision, an online portal run by the National Police Chiefs Council to document such reports, commonly receives 63 complaints per week. Post-Brexit, this number surged to 331 weekly complaints. Across the UK, 3076 hate crimes were reported to police forces between 16th - 30th June 2016. This marks an increase by 915 reports from the same period in 2015 and a 42% increase in reporting hate crime nationally.

Spikes in hate crime as a result of political turmoil are a known global phenomenon. According to Assistant Chief Constable Mark Hamilton, ‘this is similar to the trends following other major national or international events. In previous instances, crime levels returned to normal relatively quickly but we are monitoring the situation closely.’ But is the link between the referendum outcome and the rise in hate crime correlative or causative? Since immigration was a defining issue of the referendum, an increased sensitivity towards crime experienced by those from particular religious/racial groups is to be expected. It is not difficult to see how general crime (and even accidents) are reimagined as racially aggravated crime in light of nationwide political tension. The distress of one tweeter is perhaps a case in point: ‘1st time in 41 years just been racially abused in leafy Wimbledon by middle aged couple who rammed my car while parking!’

Equally, there are more ways to report hate crimes and those channels are more widely publicised. The referendum outcome inspired the ‘PostRefRacism’ campaign on Twitter and Facebook, whilst the Hindu Council has since launched an online reporting portal to document offences against the UK Hindu community. A widespread culture of reporting may encourage those commonly subject to hate crime to report when they otherwise would not have done, such that the surge in reports does not represent Brexit-related hate crime exclusively but the general rates of commission across the UK. Finally, caution is urged not to assume the number of reports equates to number of hate crimes committed: all such data monitors is the number of incoming complaints rather than the number of convictions or guilty pleas.

However, to attribute all incidents to increased sensitivity, increased awareness of reporting channels and diluted data would be reductive. Indeed, the criminality of certain incidents is defined by their reference to the referendum. The ‘Tell Mama’ campaign which monitors anti-Muslim hate has had reports of members of the public shouting ‘we voted you out’. In Cambridge, leaflets were tucked under car windscreen wipers and through post boxes reading ‘leave the EU - no more Polish vermin’. Shazia Awan, a prominent Muslim Remain campaigner, received an abusive email which read: ‘I cannot wait to send you and the anti-white garbage that you stand for back to the Third World dumps that you came from’. The Head of the Polish Community Centre in Hammersmith, which was the target of xenophobic graffiti mere days after the referendum, said ‘it’s cause and effect. We’d never had incidents like this before and, since Friday, this has happened’. Plainly, Brexit has mandated the racist views of a minority. Emboldened by what they perceive as the UK’s officiated anti-immigrant stance, racism bubbles over from privately held intolerance to public acts of violence. Testament to the encouragement felt by these individuals is the bold, unsophisticated nature of their crimes: leafleting homes in broad daylight, spray-painting graffiti, shouts in front of passers-by. Little care is taken to limit their evidential trail; their crimes are almost designed to be caught.

So how, when caught, are these individuals being charged? Harassment, common assault and offences under Part I of the Public Order Act 1986 (‘the Act’) are most commonly charged, followed by offences under Part III of the Act and then criminal damage. This first category of offences exist as racially aggravated and non-racially aggravated alternatives (i.e., common assault under section 39 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 and racially aggravated common assault under section 29 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998). Provided the Crown can establish that the perpetrator demonstrated hostility based on the victim’s membership (or presumed membership) of a racial/religious group, or that the offence was motivated (wholly or partly) by hostility towards members of a racial/religious group based on their membership of that group, the individual will be convicted of the racially aggravated offence. But unless the offences are so serious as to warrant trial by jury, the current sentencing guidelines for these offences have the same maximum penalty as for their non-racially aggravated counterparts. Consequently, the punishments imposed in respect of the most commonly charged incidents of post-Brexit hate crime will often fail to reflect the particular racial aggravation. It is perhaps understandable that on 29th June, David Cameron called for ‘new guidance for prosecutors on racially aggravated crime’ which, it is widely believed, will encourage prosecutors to pursue tougher sentences in hate crime cases.

Of course, where the act in question is sufficiently serious, its use or threat of use is designed to influence government or to intimidate a section of the public and its purpose is to advance a particular political, religious or ideological cause, the individual will be charged under the Terrorism Act 2000. There is currently no publicly available information as to the ratio of terrorism charges to non-terrorism charges in respect of Brexit-related hate crime. However, it is plain that some hate crime is bleeding into the terrorism provisions. The envelopes of white powder daubed with the words ‘Paki filth’ and recently sent to Lord Ahmed, a mosque in Leyton and Muslim Welfare Centres in Finsbury Park and Tottenham are currently being investigated by the North East Counter Terrorism Unit.

The true extent of Brexit-catalysed hate crime and the profile of charging decisions made will no doubt take time to emerge. Despite the most recent (pre Brexit) Crime Survey for England and Wales concluding that racism is slowly decreasing in popularity, it is plain that the outcome of the referendum has had a direct effect on the commission of racially aggravated hate crimes nationwide. With the peak number of incidents recorded as 289 on the 25th June, we can only hope that this recent surge was no more than the ignorant reaction of a harmful few who have wrongly interpreted the outcome of the referendum, rather than the resurgence of a 1980s-era climate of racism.
[1] A ‘hate crime’ is any notifiable offence committed against a person or property that is motivated by hostility towards someone based on their disability, race, religion, gender identity or sexual orientation, whether perceived to be so by the victim or any other person.

Posted by Kate Parker on 01 August 2016 at 16:29