In the Bristol Civil and Family Justice Centre
13 November 2020
His Honour Judge Ralton
Bristol City Council
1. The claimant in this case is Bristol City Council, in its capacity as local authority, and the defendant, for the purposes of today, is Mr Ramon Longbottom. There is quite a lot of history to this case, which can be summarised very simply.
2. The City Council have been seeking since May 2019 orders against Mr Longbottom to try to stop him begging in Bristol, the first interim order being made by District Judge Howell on 24 May 2019. Orders have been continued and, indeed, amended since, all with the same objectives, of forbidding Mr Longbottom to enter a certain part of Bristol, and to forbid him from begging. Unfortunately, since the grant of the injunction orders, it has been alleged that Mr Longbottom has continued to enter parts of Bristol that he should not, and to beg.
3. Committal orders have previously been made against Mr Longbottom. They have escalated in their severity. On 20 March of this year District Judge O’Neill determined that there should not be a penalty. On 27 May of this year I imprisoned Mr Longbottom for 28 days; then, more recently, made a harder order against Mr Longbottom, on 1 July of this year, sentencing him to four months’ custody; always in respect of the same sorts of breaches – begging, generally speaking, outside Asda, one of his favourite locations – the sentences always concurrent rather than consecutive. Mr Longbottom, no doubt, served two of the four months that I gave him, and was duly released.
4. Unfortunately, Mr Longbottom again breached the order. A warrant was sought for his arrest, and he was brought before his Honour, Judge Ambrose, on 28 October of this year, who released Mr Longbottom on bail on condition of compliance with the injunction order. The breaches which were then before the court are set out in the affidavit of Mr Gareth Liggins, who is the City Council’s street intervention service co-ordinator, and thus the case comes before me today, 13 November, and I am grateful to the assistance of Mr Denford, who appears on behalf of the City Council, and to Mr Richardson, who appears on behalf of Mr Longbottom.
5. As I understand it, Mr Longbottom, through Mr Richardson, in effect, admitted the breaches before Judge Ambrose, but, for the avoidance of any doubt, formally admits before me five breaches, all of which relate to begging, two incidents on 24 September, and then on 25 September, 30 September and 1 October. Whatever else, plainly Mr Longbottom is entitled to credit for, in effect, pleading guilty to those breaches.
6. Further allegations are made, unfortunately, against Mr Longbottom, which are not formally before the court under an application to commit or under an arrest, but the incidents are described in an affidavit of Mr Gareth Liggins made on 10 November 2020. On 29 October 2020 Mr Liggins found Mr Longbottom sitting next to Perry’s Bridge, which was a breach of the order, because he was in a place that he should not be, but, on the other hand, he was seeking to sell the magazine called The Big Issue. For the avoidance of any doubt, I regard that as a technical breach, because the reality of this case, this is all about not stopping Mr Longbottom from being in certain places, but to stop him begging. On 9 November, however, Mr Longbottom was found begging, and that is admitted. Of course, I cannot sentence in respect of those matters, but I note they exist. I also note that Mr Longbottom has effectively put his hands up to them.
7. This is a very difficult case for the court to deal with. What does the court want to do? It wants Mr Longbottom to comply with this order, that is all, it wants Mr Longbottom not to beg, and, if the court finds that its order is not obeyed, then it puts in place steps which are coercive to ensure that the order is obeyed. Breaking a court order is a contempt of court. This court’s powers, though, are limited. The court can make no penalty; it could fine Mr Longbottom, or sequester his assets, both of which sanctions seem signally pointless in a case such as this; or it could sentence Mr Longbottom to a period of imprisonment for up to two years, as it has done before.
8. At first glance, it would be a fairly straight-forward exercise to say Mr Longbottom is back before the court for five breaches, just like the breaches that were before me in July; why should I not just send him straight back inside? I want Mr Longbottom to know that I am exceedingly tempted to do that, because of the way he has flouted the court order to date, again and again. Mr Richardson has spoken up on behalf of Mr Longbottom. Mr Longbottom currently has hostel type accommodation. If he goes into prison he will lose it, albeit I am told by the City Council that arrangements would be made, on his release from prison, to try to house him swiftly, because he is vulnerable, for health reasons, to COVID-19.
9. There is some slight evidence of positive steps being taken by Mr Longbottom by way of making arrangements so that he could sell The Big Issue, by trying to deal with his drug addiction, by trying to remain within the benefits machinery, to have benefits. My concern is that, if I send Mr Longbottom straight to prison, we will be back to square one on his release, almost entirely balanced by my concern that, if I do not send Mr Longbottom to prison, he will be back begging on the streets of Bristol within a nanosecond, and the City Council will be applying for another warrant.
10. What I have decided to do is to pass a suspended sentence on this occasion. The sentence, however, is going to be meaningful. I agree with Mr Denford that this is an A2 case within the meaning of the guidelines, and, whilst it can certainly be said on behalf of Mr Longbottom that he has not been violent, aggressive or abusive in the case of any of the breaches that I have been addressing, and, to that extent it could be said there is no harm to victim, nonetheless, begging itself is antisocial, but, more to the point, the breaches have been intentioned, or, rather, intentional, deliberate, and in the knowledge of what the County Court would do in the event of breach – Mr Longbottom, stop flouting these injunction orders which are made against him. But for the admission, in effect, the plea of guilty, this time round, I would sentence Mr Longbottom to nine months’ custody for each breach, to run concurrently. I give him credit for his plea of guilty, bringing the period of sentence to six months, each concurrent, and I am going to suspend that sentence for one year upon compliance with the injunction order.
11. Mr Longbottom, I hope you understand how close you have come to being sent inside and spending tonight, and quite a number of weeks, in a prison, again. I hope you understand that, if you are caught begging again, and you are brought back before a judge, it is highly likely you are going to be sent to prison, is that clear? I hope you understand that the City Council are aware of you, they have you on radar. They are going to know if you go begging. You are not going to get away with it. Do you understand that? Try not to let the court down.
12. That, then, concludes my judgment on the matter.