A planned vigil for Sarah Everard hangs in the balance after a High Court judge refused to make a declaration regarding the right to gather for protest under coronavirus restrictions.
Organisers of the proposed Reclaim These Streets event in south London on Saturday say the Metropolitan Police told them it could not go ahead due to lockdown rules.
They brought urgent legal action on Friday, asking Mr Justice Holgate to make “an interim declaration” that any ban on outdoor gatherings under coronavirus regulations is “subject to the right to protest”.
But the judge declined to grant the group’s request and also refused to make a declaration that an alleged policy by the force of “prohibiting all protests, irrespective of the specific circumstances” is unlawful.
Reclaim These Streets was organised 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 at Clapham Common bandstand, close to where Ms Everard went missing, at 6pm on Saturday.
At the outset of Friday’s hearing, the judge 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.”
In his ruling, he said the organisers were told by police that “the vigil would be illegal and that their ‘hands were tied’ by Covid-19 regulations”.
The judge added that the four claimants “were told that, as organisers, they would be liable to be issued with £10,000 fixed penalty notices”, and could also be arrested.
Mr Justice Holgate said it would not be “appropriate for the court” to make the declaration sought.
He ruled that “the requirements of the law have been clearly stated” in previous court rulings, including a challenge to Covid-19 lockdown rules brought by businessman Simon Dolan, which was dismissed by the Court of Appeal in December.
The judge also said: “Given what has happened at the hearing, it may well be that there will be further communication between the claimants and the solicitors they instruct and the police to deal with the application of the regulations and (the rights to freedom of expression and assembly) to this particular event.”
However, he added: “That is not a matter upon which the court should comment.”
The judge concluded: “I decline to grant the interim relief sought. But I hope that, in this judgment, I have clarified the application of the law in so far as it is appropriate for me to do so at this stage.”
Lawyers representing the organisers earlier argued the Met’s interpretation of the Covid-19 restrictions goes against human rights law.
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.”
The barrister said the measures would include social distancing, wearing of masks and marshals.
Mr Hickman told Mr Justice Holgate: “They (the Met) 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.
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 added: “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.”
He also told the court: “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.
In written submissions to the court on behalf of the group, Mr Hickman said: “The vigil is to be held for Sarah Everard and for all women who feel unsafe, who go missing from streets, or who face the fear of violence every day.
“It is intended to raise awareness and provoke change in attitudes towards and understanding of the pervasiveness of threats faced by women.
“The claimants wish to proceed with it now whilst what has happened to Ms Everard is at the forefront of their and other attendees’ minds, as well as in those of the public nationally.”
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.