Political and social differences often provide the ammunition for weapons of creative destruction and symbolic acts of vandalism. From one suffragette's acts of iconoclasm on Velazquez's Rokeby Venus, to the recent toppling and sinking of the Edward Colston statue. Over the centuries, memorials and other public works of recognised stature have been attacked, defaced and destroyed.
What are the legal consequences (if any) of such acts?
The Colston statue was designated a Grade II listed structure in 1977. Under the Criminal Damage Act 1971 (CDA), it is a criminal offence to destroy or damage a listed structure either intentionally or through recklessness. Damage to it could amount actionable offence capable of attracting a maximum sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment. However, where the damage value is less than £5,000, the Magistrates’ Court can order a maximum sentence of 3 months’ imprisonment and/or a fine of up to £2,000.
Concerns have been raised that the law focuses too heavily on the monetary value of the damage - with insufficient consideration given to wider distress caused by this type offence. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is anticipated to change this. It removes the focus on monetary values in sentencing, and provides greater discretion to courts to deal effectively with memorials of lower value, but higher cultural, historical and emotional significance. Whist the courts will no longer be constrained by financial considerations, they might well be faced with a moral dilemma when public opinion over a particular memorial is divided. The division in public opinion over the cultural significance and value of the Colston statue is a good example of this. It has re-opened conversations about the future of memorials and the relationship between the arts, the law and politics.
If some people are upset by vandalism to a statue, but others view the statue to be more upsetting in itself, it is understood that judges will have to weigh up opposing arguments at the sentencing stage.”