Anti-Apartheid protesters historic convictions overturned by Crown Court

From: Criminal Cases Review Commission
Published: Wed Jan 18 2023

The historical convictions of three anti-apartheid protestors which were sent by the CCRC to the appeal courts in November of last year have been successfully overturned by the Crown Court yesterday (17 January 2023)

On 12 May 1972, a group of protesters from the Putney Young Liberals took part in a demonstration aimed at disrupting the departure of the England rugby union team from the Star and Garter Hotel in Richmond ahead of a tour of South Africa.

A total of 14 people were arrested and charged after sitting in the path of the coach - resulting in 13 people being convicted following trial. However, unknown to the trial or fellow defendants was that one of the group was an undercover police officer, who continued to participate in group defence discussions and report back to the police.

After making the decision to refer the case to the appeal courts in November 2022, the CCRC said the police had failed to reveal the participation of an undercover police officer to the prosecutor or court. In light of these revelations, the CCRC considered there was a likely chance the convictions would be overturned as an abuse of process.

The appeals which heard today at Kingston Upon Thames Crown Court related to the cases of:

  • Christabel Gurney - convicted on 14 June 1972 of obstructing the highway and obstructing the police.
  • Ernest Rodker - convicted on 12 July 1972 of obstructing the highway and obstructing the police.
  • Jonathan Rosenhead - convicted on 12 July 1972 of obstructing the highway.

Helen Pitcher OBE, Chairman of CCRC said:

We referred these cases because the courts in 1972 were misled, and the defendants' basic legal rights were breached.

During our investigation we saw evidence of deliberate and persistent non-disclosure by the police which was sanctioned by senior officers.

The CCRC was confident that once the Crown Court heard the full facts surrounding these historical convictions, they would be overturned.

Public confidence in the police and our public institutions is very important. Whilst these cases date back a long time, old convictions can have a profound impact on the lives of those concerned. It is never too late to challenge a miscarriage of justice, and this has been evidenced today.

You can read the CCRC's original press release when referring the case to the courts in November 2022 here.

Historical background to the cases

This miscarriage of justice related to a group of protesters who aimed to disrupt the England rugby union coach en route to play in apartheid-era South Africa.

The protesters assembled and sat down in the path of the coach, and a total of 14 people were arrested and charged. 13 were later convicted following trials at Mortlake Magistrates' Court in June and July 1972.

Unbeknown to almost anyone at the time, one of the group was an undercover police officer (known as HN298) from the Metropolitan Police's Special Demonstration Squad (SDS).

The officer had protested alongside the group, was arrested at the scene, and convicted alongside them under his assumed name. Contrary to guidance in force at the time, the SDS failed to reveal the presence of HN298 to the investigating officers, the prosecutor or the court.

The undercover officer was also party to discussions about defence tactics and legal advice that had been provided to the other defendants. He reported this information back to his superiors, therefore breaching the confidentiality between his co-defendants and their lawyers.

In view of the recent judgement the CCRC continues to appeal for other members of the Putney Young Liberals connected/convicted as a result of this protest to come forward, so that their cases can also be considered.

The new information at the heart of the CCRC's referral was provided by the Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI). These were the first cases referred to the CCRC by the UCPI.

Notes to Editors

  1. The UCPI was set up in 2015 to examine undercover policing in England and Wales since 1968. It followed the review into undercover policing carried out by Mark Ellison QC. The UCPI's remit is to investigate the contribution of undercover policing towards preventing and detecting crime, assess the adequacy of regulation at the time, and review the extent of the duty to make disclosure during an operation, identifying any scope for miscarriages of justice to have occurred where proper disclosure was not made. More information about the UCPI can be found on their website:
  • The UCPI has an independent panel (which consists of senior members of the CPS and police) which considers cases where the UCPI believes a miscarriage of justice may have occurred. The panel considers if further action needs to be taken - including whether a case should be referred to the CCRC.
  • The SDS was formed in 1968. It was originally set up to investigate anarchists, but the focus developed to extreme left-wing groups, with a focus on gathering intelligence, rather than evidence. The SDS was part of Special Branch and known for its secrecy.
  1. The CCRC is an independent body set up under the Criminal Appeal Act 1995. It is responsible for independently reviewing suspected and alleged miscarriages of criminal justice in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is based in Birmingham and is funded by the Ministry of Justice.
  1. There are currently 11 Commissioners who bring to the CCRC considerable experience from a wide variety of backgrounds. Commissioners are appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of the Prime Minister in accordance with the Office for the Commissioner for Public Appointments' Code of Practice.
  1. The CCRC usually receives around 1,400 applications for reviews (convictions and/or sentences) each year. Since starting work in 1997, the CCRC has referred around 3% of applications to the appeal courts.
  1. The CCRC considers whether, as a result of new evidence or argument, there is a real possibility that the conviction would not be upheld were a reference to be made. New evidence or argument is argument or evidence which has not been raised during the trial or on appeal. Applicants should usually have appealed first. A case can be referred in the absence of new evidence or argument or an earlier appeal only if there are exceptional circumstances.
  1. If a case is referred, it is then for the appeal court to decide whether the conviction is unsafe or the sentence unfair.
  1. More details about the role and work of the Criminal Cases Review Commission can be found at The CCRC can be found on Twitter @ccrcupdate and Instagram the_ccrc
  1. Ms Gurney, Mr Rodker and Mr Rosenhead are represented by Mike Schwarz of Hodge Jones & Allen.D
Company: Criminal Cases Review Commission

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