Sarah Everard vigil organisers win legal challenge against Metropolitan Police after ‘rights breached’

High Court rules that none of the force’s decisions were ‘in accordance with the law’

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Editor
Friday 11 March 2022 18:09
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Sarah Everard vigil organisers 'feel vindicated' following High Court ruling against Met Police

Organisers of a vigil for murdered Sarah Everard have won a High Court challenge against the Metropolitan Police, after the force ‘failed to perform its legal duty’.

A judge condemned the Met for breaching the rights of the Reclaim These Streets group, which cancelled their planned event in March 2021 after being threatened with arrest and £10,000 fines under Covid laws.

More than 1,000 people still attended Clapham Common for the vigil, which ended with several women being arrested and allegations of heavy-handed policing.

On Friday, the High Court found Scotland Yard breached the organisers’ rights with their handling of the event and that its decisions 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 Met’s decisions was in accordance with the law; the evidence showed that it 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.”

In a statement, Reclaim These Streets hailed the judgment as a “victory for women”.

“It shows that the police were wrong to silence us,” the claimants added. “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.”

The group said local women organised the event because they felt not just sad and afraid, but “angry that women still weren’t safe” and the burden was on them to protect themselves.

“We couldn’t have imagined the far-reaching implications of our decision to organise the vigil,” they added. “We hope that the police learn some important lessons.”

The claimants – 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 that police did not assess the potential risk to public health.

The full judgment said that Metropolitan Police letters and statements “reflected a continued misunderstanding of the law”, and that the officers responsible had failed to understand the “reasonable excuse” provisions that meant all protests were not banned.

Judges said Scotland Yard had “mis-stated the legal position” under Covid regulations and made “errors of law”.

“In the name of equal treatment and ‘consistency’, the Met refused to take account of the nature of the claimants’ cause, and the attitude of the public to that cause,” Lord Justice Warby said. “This was wrong.”

Ms Everard was kidnapped, raped and murdered by serving armed officer Wayne Couzens, whose arrest was announced on 10 March 2021.

Later that day, newly formed women’s group Reclaim These Streets called a vigil on Clapham Common, where Ms Everard disappeared, for her and “all women who feel unsafe, who go missing from our streets and who face violence every day”.

Organisers liaised with police and Lambeth Council so the vigil could be managed safely and with a reduced risk of coronavirus transmission, but Scotland Yard “effectively vetoed” the event by declaring it unlawful under Covid laws.

The court was told that Scotland Yard told organisers the vigil would be “illegal” at an initial meeting on 11 March, telling the women they could be fined £10,000 for organising a large gathering and arrested for assisting an offence.

Reclaim These Streets launched an urgent judicial review of the police position, arguing that they had misinterpreted the law, but a judgment on 12 March 2021 was inconclusive.

Mr Justice Holgate refused to make a declaration on the correct interpretation of the Health Protection Regulations, or a separate declaration that a policy prohibiting all protests was unlawful.

Scotland Yard then issued a public statement warning people not to attend any vigil for Ms Everard and making clear it considered them unlawful, the High Court was told.

Judges were critical of the press release, saying it “failed accurately to reflect the law” and continued to suggest that the vigil was unlawful by encouraging women to stay at home.

Police at the unorganised vigil that went ahead for Sarah Everard after Reclaim These Streets cancelled (PA)

Lord Justice Holgate said that after his judgment on 12 March 2021, it was “plainly incumbent on the police to engage with the organisers in exploring precautionary measures, to see whether the event could go ahead in some appropriate form.

“Instead, the contemporaneous documents show that the Met focused on issuing their press release, which did nothing to reverse the chilling effect of their earlier stance.“

Reclaim These Streets cancelled its Clapham Common vigil and more than 30 linked events that were to be held at the same time in different cities.

But an unorganised event went ahead at Clapham Common on 13 March, which ended with the arrests of nine people including a woman who was pinned to the ground, in widely condemned scenes.

Scotland Yard had denied wrongly interpreting Covid laws or unlawfully interfering with the group’s rights.

In a statement issued before a hearing in January, the force said: “The Met was unable to give an advance assurance to the claimants that their involvement in organising the vigil would not put them at risk of enforcement action during, or subsequent to, that event.”

On Friday, it indicated that it was considering appealing the judgment, and that it had wider implications for how police have to carry out proportionality assessments before interfering with protests.

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.”

She said the force knew “how strongly people felt in wanting to come together” for the vigil but had “worked very hard in challenging circumstances to interpret and apply” Covid regulations.

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