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Spectators' racist taunts were breach of peace

8 June 2006

Racist taunts directed at players or opposing supporters at a football match can be a breach of the peace even if lost in the general noise of the crowd, the appeal court ruled yesterday.

Allowing three Crown appeals against acquittals by sheriffs of supporters charged with racially aggravated breach of the peace at premier league matches, the court ruled that there is nothing special about football matches which reduces the seriousness of conduct that might amount to a breach of the peace if done elsewhere.

Each of the cases arose from incidents at Ibrox or Celtic Park. Russell Hutchison was charged with making V-signs and shouting anti-English abuse at Rangers fans from the Dundee section of the crowd at Ibrox. William Bell was accused of making monkey taunts towards Celtic player Henri Camara from among Hearts fans at Parkhead; and Derek Johnstone was alleged to have shouted abuse at Celtic player Bobo Balde from the Rangers end at Parkhead.

In each case the sheriff upheld a submission of no case to answer on the basis that the incidents were very brief and in the context of shouting and gesticulating by supporters on both sides, no breach of the peace had occurred.

The appeal court disagreed. Gordon Nicholson QC, giving the court's opinion, said the court accepted that "something more than evidence about swearing and obscene gestures is likely to be required before the conduct in question can properly be characterised as amounting to a breach of the peace".

However, he continued, regard had to be had to the whole facts and circumstances. Violence at football matches was unfortunately by no means uncommon, and "Consequently, in our view, any conduct which can reasonably be regarded as likely to provoke violence must be regarded as serious."

Given that in each case the conduct took place in the sight of opposing supporters, in the context of a noisy crown the provocative nature of what was said and done took on a greater significance. The Crown had led sufficient evidence in each case and the sheriffs should consider the cases further.