Women’s rights activists are at the high court to argue that the police’s decision to ban a vigil for Sarah Everard in London was a breach of their human rights.
The Metropolitan police were criticised last March after using force to break up the vigil on Clapham Common, close to where Everard, 33, was kidnapped by Wayne Couzens, an officer in an elite Met police firearms unit, then murdered.
The event had initially been called by members of Reclaim These Streets (RTS), but they pulled out after police told them it would be an illegal gathering under coronavirus lockdown regulations in place at the time, and threatened them with £10,000 fines.
In the ensuing outcry, RTS raised tens of thousands of pounds to fund a judicial review of the Met’s decision to ban the protest. At a two-day hearing starting on Wednesday at the high court in London, they will argue that the Met breached rights guaranteed to them under the Human Rights Act.
Before the hearing, Anna Birley, one of four claimants in the case, said: “We feel that they did not take into account our human rights under articles 10 and 11 – freedom of expression and the right to protest – when they called our vigil unlawful.
“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.”
In the divisional court, Lord Justice Warby and Mr Justice Holgate will hear that police failed to take into account an earlier ruling that there could be “reasonable excuse” under coronavirus regulations for gatherings engaging those rights.
The Met admitted it did not consider such an excuse, RTS claims. Instead the force “adopted the stance that the proposed gathering was unlawful and that they should actively deter those organising it and attending it from doing so”, according to a legal briefing by the group.
RTS said that if the judicial review were successful it would set a precedent that police could not use decisions made in parliament to “to evade their human rights responsibilities”.
Birley added: “There are some really pernicious measures being proposed that will result in police having a lot more powers to limit protesters’ rights. What we hope is that the precedent we hope is set today and tomorrow in the court case will ensure that those protections for protest rights are clearly set out.”
The Met said it was defending itself. In a statement, the force said: “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. 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.
“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.”
RTS first took legal action in March last year, asking a high court judge to make “an interim declaration” that any ban on outdoor gatherings under the coronavirus regulations at the time was “subject to the right to protest”.
But the judge declined to grant the group’s request and also refused to make a declaration that an alleged force policy of “prohibiting all protests, irrespective of the specific circumstances” was unlawful.