Organisers of a planned vigil to commemorate Sarah Everard and to protest over women’s safety say a Metropolitan Police decision to stop it amounts to a breach of human rights law.
A group called Reclaim These Streets organised the event after the disappearance of Ms Everard, 33, whose body was formally identified by police on Friday, prompted a public outcry about women’s safety.
The event was due to take place in Clapham, south London, close to where Ms Everard went missing, on Saturday,
The group claims there has been an “about-face” by the Metropolitan Police and is bringing legal action against the force at the High Court in London after it was told Saturday’s event could not go ahead because of the coronavirus lockdown.
At a hearing on Friday, lawyers representing the organisers argued the Met’s interpretation of the Covid-19 restrictions goes against human rights law.
At the outset of the hearing, Mr Justice Holgate said: “All of us appreciate the tragic circumstances in which this case has had to be brought and I am sure we all respect the particular sensitivities involved.”
The group’s barrister, Tom Hickman QC, told the court: “The vigil, as it is described, has a number of proposed characteristics.
“Perhaps most importantly, it is a protest – and it is common ground that it is a protest – as well as being a vigil in the more normal sense of the word.”
In response to a question from the judge, Mr Hickman agreed that the vigil would be a “gathering” under the coronavirus legislation, adding that it would be “socially distanced”.
Mr Hickman told the court a risk assessment had been carried out, adding: “It is proposed to organise it in a responsible manner, in co-ordination with the council and the police.
“Arrangements will be made to ensure that it is conducted in a Covid-secure manner.”
Mr Hickman told Mr Justice Holgate: “The Metropolitan Police have said to my clients that this gathering cannot go ahead because gatherings are prohibited under the regulations.
“They say that any gathering of people which constitutes a protest is prohibited by the regulations and it is not up to them, the police, to make an assessment of whether or not it would be reasonable.
“Critically, (they say) it is not up to them to make an assessment as to whether or not it is necessary as a legitimate exercise of individuals’ rights under Article 10 and Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.”
Article 10 protects the right to freedom of expression and Article 11 protects the right to freedom of assembly.
Mr Hickman continued: “That’s the police’s position and we say, as a matter of law, that position is wrong.”
The group is asking for an interim declaration as to what the correct legal position is regarding the coronavirus restrictions, which would require the force to consider whether prohibiting the planned protest will breach the human rights of those involved.
Referring to the requirement under coronavirus restrictions to have a “reasonable excuse” to gather in public, Mr Hickman asked: “What could be more reasonable than exercising your right to protest?”
George Thomas, representing the Met, said there is no “blanket ban” on protest as far as the force is concerned.
He said: “The situation is that what is proposed here is a gathering of unlimited number and, given great and very understandable public concern and public interest in what has happened… it would not be at all surprising if the numbers were in the thousands.”
The barrister said this could lead to significant crowds in a central London location, at a time when Parliament’s intention is to not allow gatherings of more than two people for health reasons amid the pandemic.
Mr Thomas said: “The Metropolitan Police say that this is very clearly not an event that the regulations, on the face of it, permit and it is an event where it would plainly be proportionate for the police to impose restrictions on it.
“I can confirm that the Metropolitan Police Service does not have a policy prohibiting all protests irrespective of circumstance.
“Nothing I have said today should in any way be understood by anyone hearing today’s proceedings as the Metropolitan Police doing anything other than taking extremely seriously the concerns that the public, many members of the public, have expressed.
“The Metropolitan Police share the anger that many members of the public have about what has happened.
“It has every sympathy with the underlying cause that those wishing to have the vigil tomorrow would seek to show.
“But, in the context of the coronavirus crisis that the country is currently in, it would not be appropriate for the police to allow such a large-scale gathering to take place.”
The vigil, due to take place at Clapham Common bandstand, was organised after Ms Everard’s suspected kidnap and murder sparked anger over the safety of women on the UK’s streets.
One of the organisers, Anna Birley, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that organisation of the vigil began on Wednesday and the group had “proactively” contacted Lambeth Council and the Metropolitan Police.
“Initially, we had feedback that they were looking at ways to navigate this, that they would be looking at how they could proportionately and appropriately provide community policing to the event,” she said.
“We were in conversation about how we could do that safely so that people could express their anger and their grief without putting themselves or others at risk.
“We then had an about-face mid-afternoon yesterday. We were being put under increasing pressure that, individually, we would be at risk for doing so, but as would everybody who attended and all of the women across the country potentially who have been organising sister vigils in their own areas.”
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told a Westminster briefing that “nobody could fail to be moved by the experiences shared by many women since Sarah’s disappearance”.
But he added: “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.”
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.
Police can break up illegal gatherings and issue fines of £10,000 to someone holding a gathering of more than 30 people.
Mr Justice Holgate will give his ruling shortly.