Sarah Everard vigil organisers take legal challenge over alleged Met police U-turn

  • Video report by ITV News Correspondent Martha Fairlie

Organisers of a vigil for Sarah Everard are seeking legal action after they claimed the Metropolitan Police had reversed its position on allowing the event to go ahead.

The vigil, originally scheduled for Saturday in Clapham, was organised after a police officer was arrested in connection with Ms Everard's disappearance.

Ms Everard has been missing since March 3 and was last seen walking home from a friend's house near Clapham Common.

Human remains were found on Wednesday in Ashford, Kent but there has been no formal identification yet.

A missing sign outside Poynders Court on the A205 in Clapham. Credit: Victoria Jones/PA

A spokeswoman for the Reclaim These Streets group said it will seek an order in the High Court on Friday, challenging the Metropolitan Police’s interpretation of coronavirus legislation when read together with human rights law.

Downing Street has said Boris Johnson “completely understands the strength of feeling” around Ms Everard’s disappearance but urged people follow lockdown rules.

Anna Birley, one of the organisers of the vigil, told ITV News: "What we felt was that Sarah's case was just a tragic reminder of the fact I'm yet to find a woman who has not experienced some form of street harassment or felt unsafe on their walk home."

"So we felt really angry as well as a lot of grief about the news this week and as local women, we wanted to do something locally so that we were able to remember that and show solidarity to each other, feel some safety in numbers.

"And actually this isn't a problem with women, it's a problem with people who attack women and if we're going to talk about who has to change behaviour, it needs to be the people who are attacking women."

She said the location of Clapham Common was in-part chosen as it is a "wide open space", while organisers had emphasised wearing masks and the importance of social distancing.

Ms Birley added: "We'll continue to be talking with the Met Police, with council officers, with MPs, and with our lawyers to try and resolve this so that we can keep everyone safe but also make sure that we are exercising our right to peacefully gather and stand up for women's rights."

The Prime Minister’s official spokesperson said: “He understands the strength of feeling around this case and nobody could fail to be moved by the experiences shared by many women since Sarah’s disappearance.

“We are still in a pandemic, we would ask people to follow the rules and social distancing rules but we do understand the strength of feeling on this issue.”

Pressed again for his position on the protest, the spokesperson said: “He does completely understand the strength of feeling on this and we would ask that people continue to follow the rules and social distancing rules.”

A forensic investigator outside Poynders Court on the A205 in Clapham, during the continuing search for missing woman Sarah Everard Credit: Yui Mok/PA

It comes as the Home Secretary sought to reassure the public over the integrity and dedication of police after the arrest of a serving officer on suspicion of Ms Everard’s murder.

Writing in The Sun, Priti Patel said while such “awful” incidents are rare, they are also extremely worrying because they remind women everywhere “of the steps we all take on a daily basis, without a second thought, to keep ourselves safe”.

Senior Conservative MP Caroline Nokes has asked Home Secretary Priti Patel to step in and allow the vigil.

The chair of the Commons Women and Equalities Committee said: “I have asked Priti to step in and enable it to happen. The organisers of the vigil appear to have mixed messages from the Met.

“The Home Secretary can send a very clear message that at this awful time, when women want to express their sorrow at the tragic death of Sarah Everard, want to show their determination not to be intimidated by male violence against women and their solidarity with each other, they should be allowed to do so in a safe and socially distanced way.”

  • Universities Minister Michelle Donelan says she understands why people want to participate in the vigil, but pointed out we are still in a pandemic:

Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said better education for men about issues of harassment was “certainly something to look at again,” but “not all men were predators.”

She told Sky News the case of Sarah Everard was a “rare incident” but that everybody, “whether man or woman” should feel safe walking down the street.

The minister said: “As a woman I also recognise that we’re in a global pandemic and restrictions are in place to safeguard the lives of women and men.

“Obviously this is a delicate subject and emotions are running high and I do understand how people, quite rightly, want to show their respects.

“(But) it’s a balance between the desire to show those respects and to mark Sarah’s life and at the same time making sure we don’t spread the virus."

'How are we still here in 2021?' Women express anger over Sarah Everard case

On Thursday, Ms Everard's family released a statement paying tribute to their "beautiful daughter and sister", and urged anyone with information to help police with their ongoing investigation.

Reclaim These Streets said the vigil was "organised by a group of women who wanted to channel the collective grief, outrage and sadness in our community".

"Our plan was to hold a short gathering, centred around a minute of silence to remember Sarah Everard and all women lost to violence," a statement on Twitter added.

Under the current Covid-19 lockdown in England, people are largely required to stay at home and can only gather in larger groups for limited reasons, such as funerals or for education.

Sarah Everard went missing while walking home in south London and was later found dead Credit: Met Police/PA

Police can break up illegal gatherings and issue fines of £10,000 for someone holding a gathering of over 30 people.

Lawyers have written to the Met challenging their interpretation of coronavirus legislation, the Reclaim These Streets statement added.

Reclaim These Streets has launched an online fundraiser to raise £30,000 that it said it might need to cover potential legal costs.

Flowers left near Great Chart Golf and Leisure near Ashford in Kent Credit: Gareth Fuller/PA

This target was stretched to £40,000 as it was rapidly exceeded on Thursday night.

If the group wins its legal challenge it said it would donate the money to a women’s charity.

It said by "forcing us to cancel" the vigil, the police would be "silencing thousands of women like us who want to honour Sarah’s memory and stand up for our right to feel safe on our streets".

A Metropolitan Police statement said: "We understand the public’s strength of feeling and are aware of the statement issued by Reclaim These Streets with regard to a planned vigil for Sarah Everard in Clapham Common this weekend.

"We remain in discussion with the organisers about this event in light of the current Covid regulations."