Sarah Everard vigil cancelled
13 March 2021
Reclaim These Streets v Metropolitan Police
Sarah Everard, a 33 year old woman living in London, was walking home from a friend’s house at around 9pm on Wednesday 3rd March 2021 when she disappeared without trace. In the days that followed, public appeals for information and press coverage ensured that the case was widely discussed. A profound sense of unease and desperation for her to be found alive was voiced by many, before the worst news was confirmed. Shockingly, a serving Metropolitan Police Officer has been charged with her kidnap and murder.
The most important thing to say about the case is contained in the statement of Sarah Everard’s family. They describe the sort of person that she was and what she meant to them.
One former colleague of Sarah Everard sharing her own memories of her added
she’s a real person, not some hanger on which to display your views about women.
But the case has prompted a wider discussion about how the risk of violence and harassment against women going about their ordinary business has been normalised and accepted as part of everyday life, such that calculations as to how to minimise that risk have become second nature to many. The MP Jess Phillips, speaking during a parliamentary debate to mark International Women’s Day said: “Killed women are not vanishingly rare. Killed women are common”, before reading the names of every woman killed in the UK in the last year where a man has been convicted or charged as the main perpetrator, that exercise taking more than four minutes.
Against this background, an organisation called “Reclaim These Streets” (“RTS”) stated that they wished to “channel the collective grief, outrage and sadness in our community” and decided to hold “a short gathering on Clapham Common, centred around a minute of silence to remember Sarah Everard and all women lost to violence”. The event was described as a “socially distanced vigil” having regard to the restrictions currently in place due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It was scheduled to take place at 6pm on Saturday 13 March 2021, close to where Sarah Everard was last seen alive.
Regarding the Covid restrictions, RTS have stated that the initial indication from the Metropolitan Police (“MPS”) was that they were “trying to navigate a way through” and that they were “currently developing a local policing plan” to allow the vigil to take place. No doubt that would have been reassuring to those who wished to attend, weighing the risks presented by Covid to themselves and to the community at large with the importance to them of gathering with others as a means of expressing themselves on the issues raised by Sarah Everard’s death.
However, any individual decisions about attending the vigil became academic with the subsequent indication by MPS that their position had been reversed – the vigil was deemed to be illegal and RTS faced the possibility of hefty fines and criminal prosecution should it go ahead.
RTS sought legal advice and started a crowdfunding campaign to fund litigation to challenge the decision. That campaign stated that a declaration would be sought from the high court that:
the Metropolitan Police are wrong in their interpretation of the law and that a socially distant, outdoor gathering of this kind can be allowed under the current lockdown regulations, when read together with the Human Rights Act.
Accordingly, the RTS vigil became entwined with a highly topical debate, namely whether the restrictions imposed due to the pandemic are unduly restrictive. A statement from Liberty called for the vigil to go ahead, stating:
Protest is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy, and it’s critical that those in power do not try to stop us from standing up for what we believe in. Safe, socially distanced demonstrations are perfectly possible, and it is the duty of the police to facilitate them, not block them. The current restrictions should be and can be interpreted compatibly with our rights to free expression and assembly enshrined in the Human Rights Act. Threatening prohibitively heavy fines, with the risk of criminal conviction if challenged, for arranging this demonstration is the latest example of blunt powers being used heavy-handedly by police, and our rights being unjustly restricted.
What’s also concerning is that there are further planned attacks against our right to protest in the long-term, not just in lockdown. This week the Government revealed its new Policing Bill, a wide-ranging piece of legislation which includes numerous opportunistic attacks on our rights, including the right to protest.
At a time when the Government has given itself enormous powers in ways that affect all of us, it’s more important than ever that we can hold power to account.
With lockdown easing, our rights must be returned in full. We must be able to stand up for what we believe in – we must protect our right to protest.
The matter came before Mr Justice Holgate at 3:45pm on the day before the vigil was due to go ahead. At the time of writing, a written judgment is not available. Live reporting from court indicated that the following arguments were deployed.
On behalf of RTS it was argued that although the Covid-19 regulations prohibit gatherings, this was subject to consideration of whether the vigil would be a reasonable and legitimate exercise of individual rights of freedom of expression and assembly for protest protected under articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights. That, it was said, had not been considered by the Metropolitan Police who were deploying a blanket ban on protests, as indicated in a written policy and in correspondence.
In response, it was said that the police did not in fact have a policy banning all protests. The police had considered the applicable rights and had nonetheless concluded that allowing a gathering that could lead to very significant crowds would not be justified.
The judge declined to make the order sought by RTS. However he is reported to have commented that there may be further communication between the parties to deal with the application of the regulations and the right to protest in relation to this particular event.
A statement from RTS suggests that because of the ruling,
protest during the Coronavirus pandemic is now potentially lawful in England, as police are now able to take into account the fact that our protest has public health and public safety as a primary focus. We are working with the Council, who remain wholly supportive. We call on the police to act within the law now and confirm that they will work with us to ensure that the protest can go ahead…
The position from their perspective appears to be that the only reason why the declaration sought was not granted is that the Metropolitan Police conceded the point that it had to take into account the right to protest enshrined in the HRA. They now expect further consideration to be given to how the event can take place lawfully.
However, a statement from the Metropolitan Police states that
Today’s ruling in the High Court has confirmed that the Metropolitan Police may conclude that attendance at a large gathering could be unlawful. In light of this ruling, our message to those who were looking to attend vigils in London this weekend, including at Clapham Common, is stay at home or find a lawful and safer way to express your views”.
If the original decision was taken, as asserted by the RTS, on the basis of an understanding that there was a blanket ban on protests during lockdown, there is little to suggest that matters have moved on or that any reconsideration has taken place having regard to the proportionality of preventing the vigil from going ahead. It is not clear how or if the importance of the vigil to those who wish to assemble together “to remember Sarah Everard and all women lost to violence” has been weighed with any risks arising from the particular gathering proposed, said to centre on a minute of silence, or any steps that could be taken to mitigate those risks. Neither is it clear why if at one stage “a local policing plan” was being developed to enable the vigil to go ahead that plan could not be developed further.
Supporters, notably Harriet Harman MP, are continuing to call for the vigil to proceed on an agreed basis, but at the time of writing, with less than 24 hours to go before it is due to take place there is a lack of clarity on whether matters are in fact being revisited or are seen as concluded by the MPS. RTS have indicated that they are in discussions with MPS and will issue a statement on the morning of the planned vigil.
A statement from RTS this morning confirms that agreement was not reached and the vigil has been cancelled, with people urged not to attend public gatherings and to consider lighting a candle on their doorsteps instead.