According to the High Court, senior Metropolitan Police officers deemed that there was a greater threat of reputational harm than the public’s health when they decided not to hold vigils for Sarah Everard.
Reclaim These Streets (RTS), proposed that a socially dispersed vigil be held for the victim, 33 year old, who was killed by Wayne Couzens, a former Met officer, close to Clapham in south London.
Four women who created RTS and organized the vigil are challenging the police force’s handling of the event. This was also meant to protest violence against women.
Henna Khan, Jamie Klingler and Jessica Leigh argue that force decisions in advance of planned vigil constitute a breach their human rights and freedoms of speech and assembly. The force also failed to evaluate the risk to public safety.
Reclaim These Streets (RTS), claim that their human rights were violated when the Met disbanded their vigil. Patsy Stevenson, a protester was taken into custody
At the beginning of the two-day hearing, their lawyers informed the court that the notes from a Met Gold command meeting one day prior to the planned event contained a statement that “we are perceived as bad guys at this moment” and that they didn’t wish to add insult to injury.
Tom Hickman QC representing them said that in written arguments, the most important ‘threat’ was not the public’s health. It was the perception of a reputational risk to (force) including the possibility they might be facilitating or permitting the Vigil.
The four women are asking High Court judges to make a declaration that their human rights were breached and are seeking £7,500 in damages, which they will donate to a charity concerned with violence against women if they are successful.
They withdrew from organising the vigil after being told by the force they would face fines of £10,000 each and possible prosecution if the event went ahead, the court heard.
He stated in written arguments that Mr Hickman had planned the vigil for Ms. Everard and all women who felt unsafe.
Instead, a spontaneous protest and vigil took place. The force was widely criticised but eventually cleared by police watchdogs.
The Met defends the claim, arguing that there were no coronavirus rules in place at the time to allow for protest and that it was not required to evaluate the public health risks.
According to Mr Hickman, the actions of the force in relation the the vigil reflect its current policy that large gatherings are ‘inevitably illegal, even for protest’. This position did not exactly mirror the law.
Additionally, he stated that force had ‘failed to properly consider whether the claimants might be able to have a reasonable reason’ for organizing the gathering. He did not think about whether restricting or prohibiting the vigil on the grounds of public safety would be necessary and appropriate.
According to the barrister, there had not been an assessment of the likelihood that the event would pose a public health threat to the population. The force also did not consider whether social distancing or mask-wearing marshals, as well as test and trace methods, could reduce this risk.
Written arguments were made by Mr Hickman, who said that the vigil was for Ms. Everard, and all women feeling unsafe or missing on the streets or facing violence daily.
He said, “Above all the, the event they sought out was about collective physical presence by women coming together to feel secure, supported and to reclaim publicly space for Ms Everard, as well as other women who lost their lives, or have been victims, of violence.”
Ms Leigh, Ms Birley, are Lambeth’s local councillors. Ms Klingler, a professional event and logistics organizer, is the woman who coordinates and oversees all events. Mr Hickman stated that Ms Leigh, Ms Birley, and Ms Klingler feel they’re ‘particularly well-placed’ and wanted to make sure it was held safely and legally.
In an effort to disperse the crowd, large numbers of police officers entered the crowd.
Although initial responses to Met Police officers from the organizers were positive, the barrister stated that they had received no response. Two days earlier, women were advised by the lawyer that this would be illegal.
RTS initiated urgent legal action just days before the event. They sought a High Court declaration that any prohibition on outdoor gatherings in accordance with the coronavirus regulations of the time was’subject the right to protest.
Their request was denied and the court refused to declare that the alleged force policy of “prohibiting all demonstrations regardless of their specific circumstances” was illegal.
Couzens (49) was sentenced to life in prison at the Old Bailey on September 9 after confessing Ms Everard’s killing
Hickman stated that the combination of the pandemic and the manner in which coronavirus regulations were written, and an earlier Court of Appeal ruling, which stressed that protest was not always illegal, “posed challenges” for police officers and required them to assume an unusual policing position.”
He said that the Met had ‘failed’ to fulfill its obligations in relation to the right to free expression and assembly, as enshrined by Articles 10 and 11.
He stated that they did not start from the idea that the vigil was an important exercise by individuals of their rights to freedom to expression and association. Instead, the officers decided that the planned gathering was illegal, and the police should prevent those who were planning it or attending from participating.
Couzens (49) was sentenced for life at the Old Bailey after confessing to her murder.
Following the arrest of women, officers led them away from the scene and placed them on the ground.
A report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services said that although the police had acted in an appropriate manner when handling the events, it found the public relations crisis to be a disaster and described the statements of some members of the force’s staff as tone deaf.
Tomorrow will see the hearing continue in front of Lord Justice Warby, and Mr Justice Holgate.