The Metropolitan police breached the rights of the organizers of a planned vigil for Sarah Everard in the way they handled the planned event, high court judges have ruled, in a decision hailed as a “victory for women”.
Reclaim These Streets (RTS) proposed a socially distanced vigil for the 33-year-old, who was murdered by a serving Met officer, Wayne Couzens, near to where she went missing in Clapham, south London, in March last year.
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 organizing the vigil after being told by the force they would face ends of £10,000 each and possible prosecution if the event went ahead, and a spontaneous vigil and protest took place instead.
At a two-day hearing in January, 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 say the force did not assess the potential risk to public health.
In a judgment handed down on Friday, Lord Justice Warby and Mr Justice Holgate ruled in favor of RTS, finding that the Met’s decisions in the run-up to the event were “not in accordance with the law”.
In a statement outside the Royal Courts of Justice on behalf of the four women who organized 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 organize 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.”
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 were 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.”
The Met defended the claim brought by RTS 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.
In a statement after the ruling the Met said it was “considering very carefully” whether it should appeal.
Met assistant commissioner Louisa Rolfe said: “The Met is mindful that this judgment has potential implications in other circumstances for how a proportionality assessment is to be carried out when considering enforcement action. This may apply beyond policing the pandemic. Even in the context of the regulations that kept us safe during the pandemic, this may have important consequences.
“The Met unreservedly endorses the principle that fundamental freedoms, such as those exercised by the claimants in this case, may only be restricted where it is necessary and proportionate for a lawful purpose. Consideration of an appeal is in no way indicative that the Met do not consider such protections to be of the utmost importance. It is, however, incumbent on the Met to ensure that this judgment does not unduly inhibit its ability, and that of police forces across the country, to effectively balance competing rights in a way that is operationally deliverable.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism