'Victory for women': Court finds Met Police breached rights of Sarah Everard vigil organisers

'Victory for women': Court finds Met Police breached rights of Sarah Everard vigil organisers
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High Court judges have ruled that the Metropolitan Police breached the rights of organisers of a vigil for Sarah Everard with its handling of the event.

Reclaim These Streets (RTS) cancelled their planned socially-distanced vigil for 33-year-old Everard after being threatened with arrest and £10,000 fines.

Over 1,000 people still attended the Clapham vigil, during which women were pictured handcuffed on the ground as the Met Police made arrests.

The 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.

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 said the force did not assess the potential risk to public health.

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The Met defended the claim brought by Reclaim These Streets 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 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”.

In a statement published on Twitter, a Reclaim These Streets spokesperson said that “today’s judgement is a victory for women”.

The statement continued: “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. We organised it because as women we needed a space to stand together in solidarity, grief, defiance.

“And above all we organised it because it’s wrong that women face violence and harassment every single day.”

The group hopes that this ruling sets an important precedent for the policing of future protests - especially as the controversial Police, Courts, Sentencing and Crime Bill enters its final stages.

The group also hopes that the police “learn some important lessons”.

“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.”

Today’s ruling has been roundly welcomed on Twitter:

In a Met Police statement released today Assistant Commissioner Louisa Rolfe said: “The Met worked very hard in challenging circumstances to interpret and apply the regulations lawfully and proportionately, despite numerous changes during the pandemic.”

Rolfe added that they are “considering the judgement very carefully” before deciding whether or not to appeal the court’s decision as the judgement may impact how proportionality assessments are carried out in the future, beyond policing the pandemic.

In a summary of today’s 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 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.”

With reporting by PA.

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