Senior Metropolitan Police officers considered that “perceived reputational risk”, rather than public health, was the biggest “threat” when the force decided to “effectively veto” a planned vigil for Sarah Everard, the High Court has heard.
Reclaim These Streets (RTS) proposed a socially-distanced vigil for the 33-year-old, who was murdered by former Met officer Wayne Couzens, near to where she went missing in Clapham, south London, in March last year.
The four women, who founded RTS and planned the vigil, are bringing a legal challenge against the force over its handling of the event, which was also intended to be a protest about violence against women.
Jessica Leigh, Anna Birley, Henna Shah and Jamie Klingler argue that decisions made by the force in advance of the planned vigil amounted to a breach of their human rights to freedom of speech and assembly, and say the force did not assess the potential risk to public health.
Their lawyers told the court at the start of a two-day hearing on Wednesday that notes of a Met gold command meeting the day before the proposed event included a statement that “we are seen as the bad guys at the moment and we don’t want to aggravate this”.
Tom Hickman QC, representing the four, said in written arguments: “The most significant ‘threat’ identified was not public health but the perceived reputational risk to the (force), including in the event they were perceived to be permitting or facilitating 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.
A spontaneous vigil and protest took place instead – over which the force was heavily criticised for its actions, but later cleared by a police watchdog.
The Met is defending the claim and argues there was no exception for protest in the coronavirus rules at the time and it had “no obligation” to assess the public health risk.
Mr Hickman said the force’s actions in relation to the vigil reflected its policy at the time that large gatherings were “inevitably unlawful, even for protest, which did not accurately reflect the legal position”.
He also said the force “failed properly to consider whether the claimants might have a reasonable excuse” for organising the gathering, and did not consider whether restricting or preventing the vigil would be “necessary and proportionate” on grounds of public health.
The barrister told the court there was, for example, no assessment carried out of whether the public health risk posed by the event was likely to be low, medium or high and the force gave “no consideration” to whether proposed social distancing, mask wearing, marshals and test and trace measures would reduce the risk.
In written arguments, Mr Hickman said the vigil was planned for Ms Everard and “all women who feel unsafe, go missing from streets, or who face the fear of violence every day”.
He added: “Above all, the event they sought to organise was about collective physical presence of women coming together to feel safe, supported, and to reclaim public space for Ms Everard and other women who have lost their lives or been the victims of violence.”
Ms Leigh and Ms Birley are local councillors for Lambeth, while Ms Klingler is a professional events and logistics organiser, and Mr Hickman said the women felt they were “especially well-placed” to co-ordinate and event and were concerned to ensure it could be held “safely and lawfully”.
The barrister said “initial responses” to the organisers from local Met Police officers were positive, but the women were told at a meeting two days before the planned event that it would be “illegal”.
RTS took urgent legal action the day before the planned event, seeking a High Court declaration that any ban on outdoor gatherings under the coronavirus regulations at the time was “subject to the right to protest”.
But their request was refused and the court also refused to make a declaration that an alleged force policy of “prohibiting all protests, irrespective of the specific circumstances” was unlawful.
Mr Hickman said that a combination of the pandemic, the way in which the coronavirus regulations were drafted and a previous Court of Appeal ruling which emphasised that protest would not necessarily be unlawful, “posed challenges” for the police and “required them to take an unconventional policing role”.
However, he said the Met “failed to discharge” its responsibilities in the context of the rights to freedom of expression and assembly – enshrined in Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
He added: “Rather than starting from the premise that the vigil represented an important exercise of individual rights to freedom of expression and association, and seeking to facilitate the lawful exercise of those rights, they adopted the stance that the proposed gathering was unlawful and that the police should actively deter those organising it and attending it from doing so.”
Couzens, 49, was given a whole life sentence, from which he will never be released, at the Old Bailey in September after admitting her murder.
The policing of the spontaneous vigil that took place drew criticism from across the political spectrum after women were handcuffed on the ground and led away by officers.
But a report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services concluded the police “acted appropriately” when dealing with the event, but also found it was a “public relations disaster” and described some statements made by members of the force as “tone deaf”.
The hearing, before Lord Justice Warby and Mr Justice Holgate, is due to continue on Thursday.