The prosecution of Bianca Ali, co-founder of Cardiff Black Lives Matter, was discontinued by the Crown Prosecution Service on the eve of her trial last week. Ms Ali had faced charges alleging that she organised a protest in breach of Welsh Coronavirus Regulations outside Cardiff Bay Police Station following the death of Mohamud Mohammed Hassan shortly after his release from the custody of South Wales Police.
Mohamud Hassan died on 9 January 2021 shortly after his release from Cardiff Bay Police Station. Early media statements from South Wales Police described his death as ‘sudden and unexplained’, and suggested ‘[e]arly findings by the force indicate no misconduct issues and no excessive force’. However, the Independent Office for Police Complaints (IOPC) has served misconduct notices upon six officers of South Wales Police, including one gross misconduct notice.
From 12 to 14 January 2021, members of the community gathered outside Cardiff Bay Police Station to protest about the circumstances surrounding Mr Hassan’s death and the role of South Wales Police. Ms Ali was given fixed penalty notices for alleged organisation of an outdoor gathering of over 30 people and for leaving home without reasonable excuse contrary to the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No. 5) (Wales) Regulations 2020.
Ms Ali contested the FPNs and was then prosecuted pursuant to the Single Justice Procedure. She pleaded not guilty and was due to stand trial on 2 September 2021 at Cardiff Magistrates’ Court. She denied being involved in organising the protest, although as a prominent member of the local community and the Black Lives Matter movement, she had attended and spoken at the protest. Her participation in the protest constituted a reasonable exercise of her right to protest, protected by Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and was therefore a reasonable excuse for leaving home during lockdown. The prosecution was discontinued by the CPS on the eve of the trial following representations from Bindmans LLP and Tim James-Matthews of Matrix Chambers.
Following the judgments of the Court of Appeal in Dolan (R (Dolan) v Secretary of State for Health and Social Care  EWCA Civ 1605), and the High Court in the Reclaim These Streets litigation (R (Leigh) v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis  EWHC 661 (Admin)), which confirm that the reasonable exercise of European Convention rights is capable of amounting to a reasonable excuse for what would otherwise constitute a breach of Coronavirus regulations, a number of cases involving protests during lockdowns have resulted in discontinuances, acquittals and civil claims against the police.
This prosecution, like many others relating to breaches of Coronavirus regulations, was commenced under the Single Justice Procedure (SJP). Under the SJP, the police charge cases in respect of which a defendant must enter their plea before there is any review by a Crown Prosecutor. Although legal aid is potentially available for those who are eligible, defendants can plead guilty on the papers and be sentenced by a single magistrate without ever having to attend court and without any input from a prosecution or defence lawyer. Fortunately, in Ms Ali’s case, the CPS did eventually reach the correct decision when asked to review the decision to prosecute. However, many others prosecuted for alleged breaches of Coronavirus regulations may have been wrongly convicted.
Bianca Ali said:
I was charged by South Wales Police for allegedly organising the protests for Mohamud Hassan. I have endured eight months of stress and worry about this. It’s been a long road but today (the day before my 30th) I have been vindicated. I am so glad I took this all the way. My thoughts are with the family and friends of Mohamud Hassan as we await the findings of the Independent Office for Police Conduct.
Patrick Ormerod, solicitor for Ali, said:
South Wales Police put considerable resources into investigating and prosecuting Black Lives Matter activists – at the taxpayer’s expense – when they should have been facilitating a Covid-19-safe protest and focusing limited resources on investigating serious crime and the circumstances surrounding the death of Mohamud Hassan. The case appears to be another example of a misunderstanding of the interaction between Coronavirus regulations and the Human Rights Act 1998, and another example – like Clapham Common – of the over-policing of protest relating to the conduct of the police.
Bianca Ali was represented by Patrick Ormerod of Bindmans LLP and Tim James-Matthews of Matrix Chambers. Her legal team also included Hester Cavaciuti and Hermione Hill of Bindmans LLP and Pippa Woodrow of Doughty Street Chambers.