Metropolitan Police breached rights of organisers of Sarah Everard vigil, High Court rules
Reclaim These Streets (RTS) proposed a socially-distanced vigil for the 33-year-old, who was murdered by former Met officer Wayne Couzens, near to where she went missing in Clapham, south London, in March last year.
The four women who founded RTS and planned the vigil brought a legal challenge against the force over its handling of the event, which was also intended to be a protest about violence against women.
They withdrew from organising the vigil after being told by the force they would face fines of £10,000 each and possible prosecution if the event went ahead, and a spontaneous vigil and protest took place instead.
Jessica Leigh, Anna Birley, Henna Shah and Jamie Klingler argued that decisions made by the force in advance of the planned vigil amounted to a breach of their human rights to freedom of speech and assembly, and said the force did not assess the potential risk to public health.
In a ruling on Friday, two senior judges upheld their claim, finding that the Met’s decisions in the run-up to the event were “not in accordance with the law”.
In a summary of the ruling, Lord Justice Warby said: “The relevant decisions of the (Met) were to make statements at meetings, in letters, and in a press statement, to the effect that the Covid-19 regulations in force at the time meant that holding the vigil would be unlawful.
“Those statements interfered with the claimants’ rights because each had a ‘chilling effect’ and made at least some causal contribution to the decision to cancel the vigil.
“None of the (force’s) decisions was in accordance with the law; the evidence showed that the (force) failed to perform its legal duty to consider whether the claimants might have a reasonable excuse for holding the gathering, or to conduct the fact-specific proportionality assessment required in order to perform that duty.”
Lawyers representing the four told the court at a hearing in January that notes of a Met gold command meeting the day before the proposed event included a statement that “we are seen as the bad guys at the moment and we don’t want to aggravate this”.
Tom Hickman QC, representing the four, said in written arguments: “The most significant ‘threat’ identified was not public health but the perceived reputational risk to the (force), including in the event they were perceived to be permitting or facilitating the vigil.”
The Met defended the claim brought by Reclaim These Streets and argued there was no exception for protest in the coronavirus rules at the time, and that it had “no obligation” to assess the public health risk.
RTS took urgent legal action the day before the planned event, seeking a High Court declaration that any ban on outdoor gatherings under the coronavirus regulations at the time was “subject to the right to protest”.
But their request was refused and the court also refused to make a declaration that an alleged force policy of “prohibiting all protests, irrespective of the specific circumstances” was unlawful.
Couzens, 49, was given a whole life sentence, from which he will never be released, at the Old Bailey in September after admitting her murder.
The policing of the spontaneous vigil that took place drew criticism from across the political spectrum after women were handcuffed on the ground and led away by officers.
But a report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services concluded the police “acted appropriately” when dealing with the event, but also found it was a “public relations disaster” and described some statements made by members of the force as “tone deaf”.
In a statement outside the Royal Courts of Justice on behalf of the four women who organised the vigil, their solicitor Theodora Middleton said: “Today’s judgment is a victory for women.
“Last March, women’s voices were silenced. Today’s judgment conclusively shows that the police were wrong to silence us.
“The decisions and actions by the Met Police in the run-up to the planned vigil for Sarah Everard last year were unlawful and the judgment sets a powerful precedent for protest rights.
“We came together one year and one day ago to organise a vigil on Clapham Common because Sarah Everard went missing from our neighbourhood. We felt sad and afraid.
“We were angry that women still weren’t safe and we were tired of the burden to stay safe always weighing on our shoulders.”
She continued: “We couldn’t have imagined the far-reaching implications of our decision to organise, and certainly never imagined we would be here in the High Court a year later – but we couldn’t stand by in the face of the Met Police’s determination to prevent women from exercising their human right to protest.
“We feel vindicated by today’s judgment. This case exposes the Metropolitan Police’s total disregard for women’s human rights to assembly and expression.
“It shows that the Met Police’s decision-making was flawed at every single step of the process.”
Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Louisa Rolfe said: “I remain deeply saddened by the murder of Sarah Everard and utterly disgusted that it was a serving Met officer who took her life.
“That sadness is shared by colleagues across the Met.
“We know the impact this terrible crime has had on our communities and recognise that the vigil on Clapham Common on March 13 2021, organised to remember Sarah, was intended to give people the opportunity to express themselves.
“We know how strongly people felt in wanting to come together and have their voices heard.”
She continued: “The Met worked very hard in challenging circumstances to interpret and apply the regulations lawfully and proportionately, despite numerous changes during the pandemic.”
She said the force will now consider whether to appeal against the decision, saying it could have wider implications for other protests.
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