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The Met 'breached rights' of Sarah Everard vigil organisers

The High Court has ruled that the Met breached the rights of the organisers of a vigil for Sarah Everard.

The four women who founded Reclaim These Streets stopped organising the vigil after they were told that they would face fines of £10,000 each and possible prosecution. 

The group had taken immediate legal action the day before the planned event in an attempt to get a High Court declaration that any ban on outdoor gatherings was “subject to the right to protest”. Their request was refused. 

A spontaneous vigil and protest took place instead. 

Jessica Leigh, Anna Birley, Henna Shah and Jamie Klinger brought a legal challenge against the force over its handling of the event, which was today upheld by two senior judges, Lord Justice Warby and Mr Justice Holgate. 

They argued that the force had not assessed the potential risk to public health and that the decisions they made amounted to a breach of their freedom of speech and assembly. 

The judges found that the Met’s decisions had not been “in accordance with the law”. 

The Met had argued that under coronavirus rules, protests had no exception under rules against large gatherings. The force also said they had “no obligation” to assess the public health risk. 

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.”

Assistant Commissioner Louisa Rolfe said: “We are considering the judgment very carefully before deciding whether to appeal the court’s decision.

“The Met is mindful that this judgment has potential implications in other circumstances for how a proportionality assessment is to be carried out when considering enforcement action.

“This may apply beyond policing the pandemic. Even in the context of the regulations that kept us safe during the pandemic, this may have important consequences.

“The Met unreservedly endorses the principle that fundamental freedoms, such as those exercised by the claimants in this case, may only be restricted where it is necessary and proportionate for a lawful purpose.

“It is, however, incumbent on the Met to ensure that this judgment does not unduly inhibit its ability, and that of police forces across the country, to effectively balance competing rights in a way that is operationally deliverable.”

Lawyers representing the four women had previously told the court that notes of a gold command meeting the day before the planned vigil included the statement “we are seen as the bad guys at the moment and we don’t want to aggravate this”.

Tom Hickman QC, representing the four, said in written arguments: “The most significant ‘threat’ identified was not public health but the perceived reputational risk to the (force), including in the event they were perceived to be permitting or facilitating the vigil.”

Officers’ methods of handling protestors at the vigil also came under criticism following the vigil. 

A report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services concluded the police “acted appropriately” when dealing with the event, but also found it was a “public relations disaster” and described some statements made by members of the force as “tone deaf”.

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