‘A victory for women’ as two judges ruled the Met Police action at the Sarah Everard vigil breached the rights of the organisers.
Today, Friday March 11, Lord Justice Warby and Mr Justice Holgate ruled in favour of the four women, who founded Reclaim These Streets (RTS) and planned the vigil, and found the Met’s actions were ‘not in accordance with the law’.
What happened to Sarah Everard?
During the height of the third lockdown Sarah Everard went missing as she was walking home to the Brixton Hill area from a friend’s house near Clapham Common, in London.
As reported by the BBC, the 33-year-old marketing manager had been kidnapped by an off-duty Met Police officer, Wayne Couzens.
Her murderer reportedly told Sarah he was arresting her for breaching COVID-19 regulations. Instead he drove her near to Dover where he killed her.
He was soon apprehended by police and, in his trial, pleaded guilty to kidnap, rape, and murder, for which he was given a whole life order.
The vigil For Sarah Everard and women’s safety
Shortly after her disappearance the women behind RTS planned a vigil for Sarah on March 13. However, due to COVID restrictions Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, said these would be illegal and urged people not to go.
RTS took legal action the day before the planned event by 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’. This was refused.
At the time, the court also refused to make a declaration that an alleged force policy of ‘prohibiting all protests, irrespective of the specific circumstances’ was unlawful.
Hundreds of people ended up attending an unofficial gathering on Clapham Common in south London to pay their respects. But it ended with clashes between police and those who turned out.
What happened to Sarah sparked a debate for not only the right to protest but for women’s safety.
‘A Victory For Women’
In January, a two-day hearing at the High Court took place where the RTS organisers, Jessica Leigh, Anna Birley, Henna Shah and Jamie Klingler, argued that decisions made by police in advance of the planned vigil amounted to a ‘breach of their right to freedom of speech and assembly’.
It was concluded today, when the judges made the ruling, that the Met Police had breached the rights of the organisers.
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 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.’
According to a report by the BBC in statement after the ruling, the women’s 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 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.’