Sarah Everard: Met Police breached rights of vigil organisers with its handling of planned event

  • 'We knew the police behaviour was inappropriate' - tap above to watch Anna Birley tell ITV News London her reaction to the judgment

The Metropolitan Police breached the rights of organisers of a vigil for Sarah Everard with its handling of the planned event, High Court judges have ruled.

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 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 brought a legal challenge against the force, arguing at a two-day hearing in January that decisions it made in advance of the planned vigil amounted to a breach of their human rights to freedom of speech and assembly.

They also 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”.

Lord Justice Warby said in a summary of the ruling: “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.”

Jamie Klingler from Reclaim These Streets

The organisers hailed Friday's verdict as "a victory for women".

"Last March, women’s voices were silenced," RTS said in a statement. "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.”

They 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.”

A vigil held for Sarah Everard Credit: Victoria Jones/PA

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.

The High Court was told that senior officers in the force considered that “perceived reputational risk”, rather than public health, was the biggest “threat” when the force decided to “effectively veto” the vigil, which was also intended to be a protest about violence against women.

The Met defended the claim and argued there was no exception for protest in the coronavirus rules at the time and it had “no obligation” to assess the public health risk.

Lord Justice Warby and Mr Justice Holgate ruled in favour of RTS on Friday morning.

The Met said is was "carefully" considering the judgment before it decided whether to appeal.

Metropolitan Police 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.

Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Louisa Rolfe

“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.”

The RTS statement concluded: “If the police appeal this decision, we think it would further erode women’s trust in the force.

“Instead of wasting taxpayers’ money on an appeal, we hope that they will invest the funds in measures that tackle misogyny and keep women in London safe.”

Sarah Everard

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.

A spontaneous vigil and protest took place instead – over which the force was heavily criticised for its actions, but later cleared by a police watchdog.