The organisers of a vigil held for Sarah Everard last year have won their High Court legal case against the Metropolitan Police.
Reclaim These Streets (RTS) mounted the challenge against the force, arguing that its warnings that organisers could face fines of £10,000 each and possible prosecution if the vigil went ahead was a breach of its human right to freedom of speech and assembly. RTS also claimed that the Met did not assess the potential risk to public health.
Four women who founded RTS withdrew from organising the vigil last March during the COVID-19 lockdown, however a spontaneous gathering of hundreds of people happened in Clapham Common close to where Everard, 33, was abducted and later murdered by serving Met Police officer Wayne Couzens on March 3, 2021.
The High Court today (March 11) concluded that the Met Police breached the rights of RTS in the manner in which it handled the planned event. The ruling has been hailed as a “victory for women” [via The Guardian].
Lord Justice Warby and Mr Justice Holgate ruled in favour of RTS, finding that the Met’s decisions in the run-up to the event were “not in accordance with the law”.
“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,” Warby said in a summary of the ruling.
“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.”
Theodora Middleton, solicitor for RTS founders Jessica Leigh, Anna Birley, Henna Shah and Jamie Klingler, reacted to the news outside the Royal Courts of Justice.
“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,” she said.
“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.”
The Met has argued that there was no exception for protest in COVID-19 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 that it was “considering very carefully” whether it should appeal the High Court ruling
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.”