The Metropolitan Police has defended its handling of a vigil for the late Sarah Everard at a High Court hearing, following a legal challenge over their misapplication of Covid restrictions and use of excessive force, writes Joshua Askew…
Reclaim These Streets (RTS) had planned a socially distanced vigil for the 33-year-old who was murdered by former Met officer Wayne Couzens, on Clapham Common in March last year. But event organisers called it off after the force told them it would be an illegal gathering under lockdown rules and that they could each face fines of up to £10,000.
The Met’s response to the spontaneous vigil which took place despite their warnings came under fire for being heavy-handed and repressive, although they were later cleared by the police watchdog.
“We do not believe our approach was founded on an inaccurate interpretation of the Regulations or that this constituted an unlawful interference with the claimants’ rights,” said the Met in a statement. “Policing of public order events is highly complex and is one of the most scrutinised areas of law enforcement.
“We believe we are world leaders in this area,” they added.
Met officers were filmed handcuffing several women on the ground and dragging them away during the vigil, which drew heavy criticism from across the political spectrum.
Following the public outcry, RTS raised tens of thousands of pounds to fund a judicial review into the Met’s decision to ban the protest.
Lawyers for the RTS will argue at a High Court two-day hearing on Wednesday that the Met’s handling of the event violated their fundamental rights to freedom of speech and assembly, enshrined under the Human Rights Act.
The four women who organised the event are also seeking damages for the alleged breach, which they intend to donate to charity if they are successful.
Anna Birley, one of four claimants in the case, said: “What we didn’t want was that to set a precedent for the police to decide which protests they agreed with and which protests they didn’t.
“So we hope that the case will set a useful precedent that helps to protect protest rights – and make sure that women’s voices aren’t silenced in the future.”
The Met defended its approach: “Throughout the pandemic, officers worked to balance the need to safeguard the public at large from Covid, with the rights of individuals protected by the Human Rights Act 1998.”
Under Covid-19 restrictions in England at the time of the vigil, people were required to stay at home and could only gather in large groups for limited reasons, such as funerals or for education.
Police were allowed to break up illegal mass gatherings and issue fines of up to £10,000 organisers, yet these regulations were also “subjected to the right to protest.”
The Met has said they “will comment further once the proceedings have concluded.”