Reclaim the Streets: Sarah Everard vigil organisers take legal action after police ban event

4 weeks ago 4

A High Court judge has today refused to intervene in a legal battle launched by organisers of a vigil in memory of Sarah Everard. 

Reclaim These Streets is planning to host the event in south London on Saturday near to where the 33-year-old, whose body was formally identified on Friday, went missing.

The group brought urgent legal action at the High Court on Friday in a bid for a declaration that any ban on outdoor gatherings under coronavirus regulations is 'subject to the right to protest'.

Mr Justice Holgate declined to grant the group's request and also refused to make a declaration that an alleged policy by the force of 'prohibiting all protests, irrespective of the specific circumstances' is unlawful.

The judge left it open for talks between the organisers and police to continue over the 'application of the regulations and the (rights to freedom of expression and assembly)' to the event, but said it would 'not be appropriate' for the court to make the declaration sought.

In a statement after the ruling, Reclaim These Streets said: 'We are working with (Lambeth) 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 within the context of the overwhelming public response to Sarah Everard's death.'

In a tweet, they added: 'We are now in discussions with the Met to confirm how the event can proceed in a way that is proportionate and safe - our number one priority.'

However, a statement from the Met urged people to 'stay at home or find a lawful and safer way to express your views'.

The event was due to take place at Clapham Common, close to where Ms Everard went missing, at 6pm on Saturday. 

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick was tonight seen joining reassurance patrols in the area, as dozens of people left flowers and well wishes next to the bandstand.

The vigil, due to take place at Clapham Common bandstand in south London, was organised after 33-year-old Sarah Everard's suspected kidnap and murder sparked anger over the safety of women on the UK's streets

The group are seeking an order in the High Court today, challenging the force's interpretations of Covid-19 restrictions

Police officers at Clapham Common carry out reassurance patrols, after a body found hidden in woodland in Kent was identified as that of 33-year-old Sarah Everard

Commander Catherine Roper, the force's lead for community engagement, said: 'I understand this ruling will be a disappointment to those hoping to express their strength of feeling, but I ask women and allies across London to find a safe alternative way to express their views.

'Throughout the pandemic, we have consistently enforced the Covid regulations and have made difficult decisions during a range of gatherings on issues about which people have felt very strongly.

'Our hope has always been that people stick to the Covid rules, taking enforcement action is always a last resort.

'We continue to speak with the organisers of the vigil in Clapham and other gatherings across London in light of this judgment and will explain the rules and urge people to stay at home.'

Reclaim These Streets was organised after the disappearance of Ms Everard prompted a public outcry about women's safety. 

Organisers of a gathering in memory of Sarah Everard have claimed the Metropolitan Police have 'reversed their position' on permitting the vigil to take place

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick joins police officers at Clapham Common as part of reassurance patrols, after a body found hidden in woodland in Kent was identified as that of Miss Everard

A serving Metropolitan Police officer, who is aged in his 40s, remains in custody on suspicion of kidnapping and murdering the marketing executive and detectives have been granted more time to question him

There was an increased police presence on Clapham Common this morning

Street lighting was being fixed on Clapham Common in London this morning 

Despite the High Court refusing to intervene, a number of woman have said they will attend the vigil for Miss Everard regardless of the outcome of campaigners' discussions with police.  

Becki Elson was one of many to say they will be attending the vigil, saying she will be at the Clapham Common Bandstand at 6pm on Saturday with her 19-year-old daughter.

'Even if no one else shows up, we will take a moment to remember Sarah and leave a candle for her,' said the 35-year-old from Brixton.

'I'm angry... for the response of the police to be to tell women to further restrict their behaviour, and then the courts to refuse our right to hold a vigil for Sarah, I'm incandescent.

'It's time for women to fight back, to take control, to lead the way out of this nightmare that has lasted the entire span of human history.'

Ms Elson said police should work with campaigners and stand, socially-distanced, with those taking part in the demonstration. 

Becki Elson (left with daughter Megan) was one of many to say they will be attending the vigil, saying she will be at the Clapham Common Bandstand at 6pm on Saturday

One of the placards for the London vigil for Sarah Everard, which many have said they will attend regardless of the outcome of campaigners' discussions with police

Entrepreneur Rozina Spinnoy, who moved to Belgium almost 20 years ago, said she expects a small group to gather for an hour for a peaceful vigil on the steps of the Brussels Stock Exchange.

'Women wish to come together across many cities across the UK and beyond,' the 49-year-old mother of three said.

'Belgium and Europe is in solidarity with the UK's vigil for Reclaim These Streets and is saddened by the tragic events surrounding Sarah Everard.

'Whether the events (in the UK) are allowed to go ahead or not and permission granted - women will not be silenced.'

Ms Spinnoy said the vigil would be in line with Belgian Covid rules, which allow groups of up to 10 to gather outside, and is being promoted with fliers translated into French and Dutch.

Entrepreneur Rozina Spinnoy, who moved to Belgium almost 20 years ago, said she expects a small group to gather for an hour for a peaceful vigil on the steps of the Brussels Stock Exchange

Discussions are ongoing with the Metropolitan Police about whether the event can take place

In his ruling at the High Court, the judge said: 'Given what has happened at the hearing, it may well be that there will be further communication between the claimants and the solicitors they instruct and the police to deal with the application of the regulations and (the rights to freedom of expression and assembly) to this particular event.'

However, he added: 'That is not a matter upon which the court should comment.'

The judge concluded: 'I decline to grant the interim relief sought. But I hope that, in this judgment, I have clarified the application of the law in so far as it is appropriate for me to do so at this stage.'

Lawyers representing the organisers earlier argued the Met's interpretation of the Covid-19 restrictions goes against human rights law. 

Passersby leave tributes and flowers around the Clapham Common bandstand ahead of a planned vigil tomorrow night

People have begun to leave flowers and tributes for Sarah Everard at the Bandstand where they hope to have a vigil tomorrow night

Tom Hickman, for Reclaim These Streets, told the court a risk assessment had been carried out, adding: 'It is proposed to organise it in a responsible manner, in co-ordination with the council and the police.

'Arrangements will be made to ensure that it is conducted in a Covid-secure manner.'

The barrister said the measures would include compulsory mask wearing and social distancing, staggered arrival and departure times and marshals to oversee the event.

 Mr Hickman said in written submissions that police 'reversed their position' after initially appearing to support the vigil.

He added that police told the organisers that 'the vigil would be 'illegal' and that their 'hands are tied'' by coronavirus restrictions.

The disappearance of Sarah Everard and the arrest of armed policeman Wayne Couzens

March 3: Sarah vanished 'into thin air' after leaving friend's home Clapham around 9pm. She leaves out of her friend's back gate and speaks to her boyfriend on the phone for 15 minutes.  

March 5: Sarah's family share missing posters of her after they become increasingly concerned that she is still not home, spreading the word online with links to the Missing People charity.

March 6: Met Police release an appeal, saying Sarah was thought to have walked through Clapham Common, heading towards Brixton home, a journey of 50 minutes. They say they are not certain she ever arrived home.

March 7: Police release footage of Ms Everard and say she was walking alone on A205 Poynders Road towards Tulse Hill when she was last seen on CCTV, which has not been released to the police.

March 8: Specialist officers are drafted and 120 calls from public come in. A door-to-door operation sees police speak to 750 families

March 9: Police search gardens near Ms Everard's route and nearby Oaklands Estate.

Officers also search a pond in Clapham Common and drains along the A205 

Cordon around the Poynders Court housing complex on Poynders Road, forensics officers on scene 

11.59pm: Met police officer Wayne Couzens arrested in Kent on suspicion of kidnap. A woman in her 30s is arrested on suspicion of assisting an offender.

Neighbours say they spotted a Land Rover containing two men watching the property for two hours before around 20 officers raided the house. 

March 10: Specialist police search team arrives in Kent. They search Couzens' home and garden as well as nearby Betteshanger Park which is around two-and-a-half- miles from the house as well as an abandoned leisure complex in Great Chart near Ashford. 

8pm: Dame Cressida Dick confirms human remains were found in woodland in Ashford, Kent in the search for Sarah.  She was unable to confirm whether the remains belonged to the missing woman. 

March 11:  10am: Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was 'shocked and deeply saddened by the developments in the Sarah Everard investigation', adding 'we must work fast to find all the answers to this horrifying crime'.

Home Secretary Priti Patel added: 'Every woman should feel safe to walk on our streets without fear of harassment or violence. At this deeply sad and tragic time as we think and pray for Sarah and her family'. 

4pm: Police later confirm the suspect was treated in hospital for a head injury sustained while in custody, before being returned to a police station.

Ms Everard's family release a statement paying tribute to her as a 'shining example to us all', adding that she 'brought so much joy to our lives'.

The Met reveals an extension to the suspect's detention was granted by a magistrates' court, while the woman arrested on suspicion of assisting an offender is released on bail to return to a police station on a date in mid-April. 

6pm: Organisers of a vigil for Ms Everard say they are seeking legal action against the Met after claiming the force reversed its position on allowing the event planned for March 13 to go ahead.

March 12: Searches ramp up in the tunnels carved into the White Cliffs of Dover that run around and below Couzens' family garage. 

Teams remain at Couzens' home in Deal and in woodland near Ashford where human remains were found. 

2pm: Scotland Yard confirms the body found in Kent woodland is Sarah. Her family have been informed.

9pm: Wayne Couzens is charged with the murder and kidnapping of Miss Everard. 

The barrister also said the claimants were told that, as organisers, they would be liable to be fined £10,000, and potentially to be arrested, if they 'proceeded with their efforts to organise the vigil'.

George Thomas, representing the Met, said there is no 'blanket ban' on protest as far as the force is concerned.

He said: 'The situation is that what is proposed here is a gathering of unlimited number and, given great and very understandable public concern and public interest in what has happened... it would not be at all surprising if the numbers were in the thousands.'

The barrister said this could lead to significant crowds in a central London location, at a time when Parliament's intention is to not allow gatherings of more than two people for health reasons amid the pandemic.

He also told the court: 'Nothing I have said today should in any way be understood by anyone hearing today's proceedings as the Metropolitan Police doing anything other than taking extremely seriously the concerns that the public, many members of the public, have expressed.

'The Metropolitan Police share the anger that many members of the public have about what has happened.

'It has every sympathy with the underlying cause that those wishing to have the vigil tomorrow would seek to show.

'But, in the context of the coronavirus crisis that the country is currently in, it would not be appropriate for the police to allow such a large-scale gathering to take place.'

In a tweet shortly after the ruling, Pippa Woodrow - one of the barristers representing the claimants - said: 'Ball is now in the Met's court to confirm how the events can go ahead in a way that is proportionate and safe.'

Another barrister for the claimants, Adam Wagner, tweeted: 'At 3pm today, every police force in England was saying protest could never be lawful under Covid regulations.

'The position now, because of the ruling, is protest can in principle be lawful and it is up to the police to assess the proportionality.'

A Government spokesman said: 'All of our thoughts are with Sarah's family and friends at this terrible time, and the Government recognises why so many women and girls across the country want to pay their respects.

'We are still in the middle of a pandemic, which is why we urge people to do this safely and to continue to avoid mass gatherings.

'We have also reopened our nationwide call for views on tackling violence against women and girls. So many have bravely shared their experiences over recent days and the Government is listening.'

Under the current Covid-19 lockdown in England, people are largely required to stay at home and can only gather in larger groups for limited reasons, such as funerals or for education.

Police can break up illegal gatherings and issue fines of £10,000 to someone holding a gathering of more than 30 people.

The group had asked for an interim declaration as to what the correct legal position is regarding the coronavirus restrictions, which would require the force to consider whether prohibiting the planned protest will breach the human rights of those involved. 

Senior Conservative MP Caroline Nokes today asked Home Secretary Priti Patel to 'step in' and allow the vigil to go ahead so women can share their sorrow and express their solidarity against male violence in a socially distanced way.

Last October, large crowds of anti-lockdown protesters gathered in London, calling for an end to the 'tyranny' of pandemic restrictions before many were later charged with flouting coronavirus rules.

Protesters refused to wear masks and wielded signs demanding an end to restrictions on personal freedom imposed as part of efforts to control Covid-19.

And during the lockdown last June, tens of thousands of protesters joined forces and marched through the Capital, amid the Black Lives Matter movement.  

The vigil, due to take place at Clapham Common bandstand in south London, was organised after 33-year-old Ms Everard's suspected kidnap and murder sparked anger over the safety of women on the UK's streets.

Lawyers for the 'Reclaim These Streets' group had challenged the Met's interpretation of Covid-19 legislation when read together with the Human Rights Act. 

One of the organisers, Anna Birley, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the group had 'proactively' contacted Lambeth Council and the Met Police. 

Ms Birley organisation for the vigil began on Wednesday evening, adding: 'Initially, we had feedback that they were looking at ways to navigate this, that they would be looking at how they could proportionately and appropriately provide community policing to the event.

The vigil was planned for Saturday in memory of marketing executive Sarah Everard, who disappeared while walking home to Brixton on March 3

During the lockdown last June, tens of thousands of protesters joined forces and marched through the Capital, amid the Black Lives Matter movement

'And we were in conversation about how we could do that safely so that people could express their anger and their grief without putting themselves or others at risk.

'We then had an about-face mid-afternoon yesterday. We were being put under increasing pressure that individually, we would be at risk for doing so, but as would everybody who attended and all of the women across the country potentially who have been organising sister vigils in their own areas.'

Ms Birley said that safety of the vigil had been a 'priority from the get-go', adding: 'It would be ironic to organise a vigil to think about women's safety in public spaces without also thinking about the health and safety aspects.'  

'Ever piece of literature that we've put out has emphasised social distancing.'

She said that the location of Clapham Common was chosen because it is a 'wide open space', while organisers had emphasised wearing masks. 

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: 'He understands the strength of feeling around this case and nobody could fail to be moved by the experiences shared by many women since Sarah's disappearance.

'We are still in a pandemic, we would ask people to follow the rules and social distancing rules but we do understand the strength of feeling on this issue.'

Pressed again for his position on the protest, the spokesman said: 'He does completely understand the strength of feeling on this and we would ask that people continue to follow the rules and social distancing rules.'

Piers Corbyn took part in an anti-lockdown protest in Richmond Green on March 6 

Officers from the Metropolitan Police laid flowers at the gates of the disused golf course and sports centre close to the woodland where remains were found

'Reclaim These Streets' last night raised more than £37,000 to pay any potential costs of the High Court appeal

Ms Birley added: 'We were trying to be very thoughtful. We had QR codes so that people could do track and trace, and just really trying to work out how we can do this in a really safe way.

'I think that our right to peacefully assemble is an important one. 

'And that when people do feel strongly and when groups of people's rights are under threat because they can't walk on the street safely...or as we saw last summer, they experience racism...

'I think that our right to protest and our right to assemble in these contexts is a human right.'

She suggested that they may continue to meet if they do not get permission from the court today. 

In the statement tweeted on Thursday evening, Reclaim These Streets said the group had 'initially' received a positive response when it approached Lambeth Council and Scotland Yard while planning and promoting the event.

'The Metropolitan Police said 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 and to enable them to 'develop an appropriate and proportionate local response' to the event,' the statement said.

'Since this statement, the Metropolitan Police have reversed their position and stated that the vigil would be unlawful and that, as organisers, we could face tens of thousands of pounds in fines and criminal prosecution under the Serious Crimes Act.'

The group said by 'forcing us to cancel' the vigil, the police would be 'silencing thousands of women like us who want to honour Sarah's memory and stand up for our right to feel safe on our streets'.

A Metropolitan Police statement said: 'We understand the public's strength of feeling and are aware of the statement issued by Reclaim These Streets with regard to a planned vigil for Sarah Everard in Clapham Common this weekend.

'We remain in discussion with the organisers about this event in light of the current Covid regulations.'

A Metropolitan Police van and a private ambulance at the scene of the woods near Ashford in Kent

Police search woodland in Ashford near Kent (pictured) where human remains were found on Wednesday night

Harriet Harman, MP for Camberwell and Peckham, has written to the Metropolitan Police in support of the protest and plans to attend the gathering in Clapham Common on Saturday. 

She said: 'Parliament has not specifically acted to constrain the right to demonstrate, so long as social distancing is observed this vigil will be perfectly lawful.'

Senior Conservative MP Caroline Nokes, the chair of the Commons Women and Equalities Committee, added: 'I have asked Priti to step in and enable it to happen.

'The organisers of the vigil appear to have mixed messages from the Met.

'The Home Secretary can send a very clear message that at this awful time, when women want to express their sorrow at the tragic death of Sarah Everard, want to show their determination not to be intimidated by male violence against women and their solidarity with each other, they should be allowed to do so in a safe and socially distanced way.' 

'Reclaim These Streets' last night raised more than £37,000 to pay any potential costs of the High Court appeal.   

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