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Rights of Sarah Everard vigil organisers breached by Met Police, High Court rules

The High Court ruled on Friday that the Met Police breached the rights of the organisers of a planned vigil for Sarah Everard in Clapham, South London.

Campaigners were forced to cancel the event after the Met Police said it would be illegal to stage it under lockdown restrictions. Despite the criticism, the police threatened organisers with £10,000 fines each.

Paying their respects to Ms Everard, hundreds of people ignored the warning and attended an unofficial gathering on Clapham Common in south London last year The gathering was organised by Reclaim These Streets (RTS) following her murder by a serving Met officer, Wayne Couzens.

Images of clashes between police and women became headlines during lockdown, with widespread criticism of the Met Police and then Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick.

Anna Birley, Jessica Leigh and Henna Shah and Jamie Klingler argued that decisions made by the force in advance of the planned vigil amounted to a breach of their right to freedom of speech and assembly.

Lord Justice Warby and Mr Justice Holgate today released their ruling in favour of arguments made by the four women, who founded RTS and planned the vigil, finding that the Met’s actions were “not in accordance with the law”.

In a 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.”

Lord Justice Warby said the Met had “failed to perform its legal duty to consider whether the claimants might have a reasonable excuse for holding the gathering.

“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.”

In a statement, Assistant Commissioner Louisa Rolfe said the Met was “considering the judgment very carefully before deciding whether to appeal”.

Welcoming the High Court ruling, mayor of London Sadiq Khan said the Met’s response to the vigil had “damaged confidence” in the Met.

He added: “We know tens of thousands of dedicated Met officers have gone above and beyond throughout this pandemic – but it is clear today that there are still serious lessons to be learned in how their duties are carried out.”

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