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The Bristol Cable

‘A tragic reflection on society’: the Bristolians jailed for sleeping rough, and feeding pigeons

Civil injunctions used to tackle anti-social behaviour can end up punishing vulnerable people, to little good effect. Is there an alternative?

Illustration: Laurence Ware

Edition 31

Feeding pigeons on his balcony landed Nicholas in jail. He broke a controversial court order that experts say is being used as a “weapon” against vulnerable people, and is sometimes used incorrectly by authorities.

Nicholas’ bird-feeding habit attracted up to 150 pigeons at a time to his Bristol tower-block flat, with droppings and flies creating a health risk for him and his neighbours. 

“When we put someone in prison because they’re begging for food, what does that say about society?”

Sarah Flanagan, civil liberties solicitor

In 2018, he was served an anti-social behaviour injunction following an application by Bristol City Council. This required him to stop feeding the birds, and to keep council-installed netting on his balcony in place. 

But Nicholas continued to breach this order – 13 times – and was brought before Bristol County Court in June 2020. The court heard he had also thrown bird feed onto neighbours’ balconies. 

Nicholas got a 15-week prison sentence for breaching the order. He might have been a nuisance, but should he really have been put behind bars?

To explore that question, the Cable spoke to legal experts about the impact civil injunctions can have on vulnerable people, and whether their usage is justified. We also explored non-legal, restorative alternatives with a Bristol-based charity.

‘A tragic reflection on society’

Last July, Ramon was found to have breached an injunction, which ordered him to stop begging on the streets of Bristol, on three occasions.

Even according to the sitting judge, Ramon’s case was a tragic one. He was left homeless, with significant mental health issues, after breaking up with his partner. 

The judge admitted Ramon was guilty of passive – as opposed to aggressive – begging, but still sentenced him to six months. He was one of 15 people brought before Bristol’s courts between October 2019 and May 2022 for breaching an anti-social behaviour injunction, according to data shared with the Cable by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (see box).

Four individuals received immediate prison sentences, totalling almost 11 months between them, for breaching an injunction. Nine got suspended sentences.

“They’re awful outcomes,” says Sarah Flanagan, associate at leading solicitors’ firm Hodge Jones & Allen. “When we put someone in prison because they’re begging for food, what does that say about society?” 

Jailing a person because they’re begging for food is “a tragic reflection on society”, she adds, clearly disturbed despite her eight years’ experience as a solicitor. “But people don’t even know about it. That’s the helpful thing for the government, that all these people ‘don’t count’. They don’t have a voice. They have to just survive.”

‘I’ve struggled to find suitable barristers’ 

Flanagan’s experience has highlighted a worrying trend: people are struggling to get legal representation for themselves or their loved ones. Of the 15 people brought before the court in Bristol, at least three had no legal representation. 

Dealing with multiple addictions and having had her children taken into care, Nadine was handed an injunction in 2020 preventing her from disturbing her neighbours. Following 13 alleged breaches, she was brought before court in October 2021. She received a 28-day suspended sentence after representing herself – because she was unable to access legal aid. 

“We have heard that increasingly, these orders are being used in ways that are incoherent and inconsistent”

Andrea Fraser, civil justice lawyer

The Home Office told the Cable that access to legal representation is kept under constant review, and action is taken whenever gaps appear.

A key barrier for defence lawyers, Flanagan says, is that there is confusion about whether anti-social behaviour injunctions are criminal or civil matters: “The application of an injunction is a civil process, but once that injunction is in place, any breach of it is potentially criminal, even though the act which the person is doing is not itself a criminal offence.”

One of her former clients, in severe mental ill-health, had an injunction that required them to be courteous to their neighbours. If they weren’t, they could face a prison sentence. “It’s basically saying you need to conform 24/7 to a social norm,” she says, adding that the process can end up essentially “criminalising somebody for having mental health problems”.

In response to the Cable’s findings, a Home Office spokesperson said: “The Anti-social behaviour, Crime and Policing Act provides the police, local authorities and other local agencies with flexible powers they can use to protect communities and prevent harm. It is for local areas to determine how best to deploy these [anti-social behaviour] powers, however we expect them to be used proportionately and an injunction cannot be enforced without being granted by the courts.”

Bristol City Council declined to comment. 

‘Incoherent’ use of anti-social behaviour injunctions

Until 2014, ASBOs were often used by public authorities to tackle ‘anti-social behaviour’, a legal term encompassing a wide range of actions, such as public drunkenness, disturbing your neighbours and even begging. The infamous orders were scrapped due to their failure to tackle the underlying causes of anti-social behaviour and the fact that more than half were being breached at least once.

In 2012, Theresa May, then Home Secretary, pushed for reform, saying that “anti-social behaviour still ruins too many lives”.

Two years later, the new Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act was introduced, including a new controversial measure: civil injunctions. As well as replacing ASBOs, these superseded an older type of injunction, which was used by councils and housing associations (not the police) but could only be served on over-18s.

If granted, injunctions can ban individuals from certain areas and require them to stop certain behaviours, like drinking in public, for a potentially unlimited amount of time.

But they do not only target actual behaviour, but can also be enforced against a person who is only threatening anti-social behaviour. 

“It’s not helpful to apportion blame, it’s about supporting people to live harmoniously wherever possible”

Nina Bayandor, Resolve West

They can also make ‘positive’ demands on an individual, such as requiring them to attend a drug misuse course. Breaches can result in prison sentences of up to two years for people over 18. 

Andrea Fraser, a lawyer at UK law reform organisation JUSTICE, said: “In the run-up to the 2014 Act, [we saw] calls by the Home Office for a more flexible, victim-focused response to ASB.”

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However, when civil injunctions and other similar civil-criminal orders were introduced by the 2014 Act, Fraser says there was also a decline in the publication of data regarding their use.

“Why was that?” she asks. “If you introduced this new tool which you thought was going to be better than ASBOs, surely you would want to show how much better it was working.”

The 2014 legislation didn’t just introduce new civil injunctions, but also other civil-criminal orders, such as public space protection orders (PSPOs), community protection notices and criminal behaviour orders.

“When they were introduced, I understand they were meant to be used in different circumstances,” Fraser says. “But what we have heard is that increasingly these orders are being used together, in ways that are incoherent and inconsistent.”

New research published last month from Sheffield Hallam University found that some police officers were “turning a blind eye” to homelessness, whilst others used the PSPOs, alongside other formal powers, to actively “seek out people experiencing street homelessness”. 

‘It is important to highlight the need for non-legal routes’

Fraser says there are now more than 20 different civil-criminal orders. JUSTICE has set up a 12-month investigation into their use.

“I think our recommendations will be a mix of how orders can be improved in terms of fairness, and also their effectiveness at protecting victims,” Fraser says. “It is also important to highlight the need for non-legal routes to tackle some of the issues civil-criminal orders seek to address, especially around issues such as homelessness.”

Bristol-based conflict-resolution charity Resolve West is one organisation exploring how anti-social behaviour can be tackled via non-legal routes. It supports communication between neighbours in dispute, for example, through joint meetings with experienced mediators. 

One user of the service said: “I can’t fault the approach at all and further dealing with the police would not have been so positive for me as I would have been more frightened.”

Nina Bayandor, the charity’s deputy director, says most anti-social behaviour “tends to start with someone going about their life in a way that is different to somebody else’s, having different ideas about what is OK and what is not OK”. 

Bayandor says it’s vital to give people autonomy during this process. “We’re of the mindset that it’s not helpful to apportion blame, it’s about supporting people to live harmoniously wherever possible.”

She believes involving the courts can sometimes “fuel the fire” of these types of conflict. “Going down the route of criminal justice can be an aggravating factor,” she says.

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  • Interesting article. Thanks.

    Please remember to define acronyms, like ASBO, when using them. I gathered the meaning from context here, but that’s can’t always be done.

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