Vigil organisers seek legal challenge over ‘about-face by police’

Emma Bowden and Sam Blewett, PA

Organisers of a vigil in response to the disappearance of Sarah Everard are taking legal action after claiming police reversed a decision on allowing it to go ahead.

They said there had been an “about-face” by the Metropolitan Police and they were told Saturday’s Reclaim These Streets event would not be permitted due to the coronavirus lockdown.

The group said in a statement on Thursday evening that they would seek an order in the High Court on Friday, challenging the force’s interpretations of Covid-19 restrictions when read against human rights law.

Senior Conservative MP Caroline Nokes asked Home Secretary Priti Patel to “step in” and allow the vigil to go ahead so women can share their sorrow over Ms Everard’s disappearance and express their solidarity against male violence in a socially distanced way.

Scotland Yard said it understands the “public’s strength of feeling” and that the Met remains in discussion with organisers “in light of the current Covid regulations”.

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.

One of the organisers, Anna Birley, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that organisation for the vigil began on Wednesday and the group had “proactively” contacted Lambeth Council and the Metropolitan Police.

“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,” she said.

“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.”

Sarah Everard
Sarah Everard’s suspected kidnap and murder sparked anger over the safety of women on the UK’s streets (Family handout/PA)

Ms Nokes, a former minister who chairs the Commons Women and Equalities Committee, said the Met appears to have sent “mixed messages” over the event as she called on the Home Secretary to help the organisers.

“I have asked Priti to step in and enable it to happen,” she told the PA news agency.

She said Ms Patel “can send a very clear message that, at this awful time, when women want to express their sorrow” at Ms Everard’s disappearance and “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”.

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.

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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.”

She said the location of Clapham Common was in part chosen because it is a “wide open space”, while organisers had emphasised wearing masks and the importance of social distancing.

She 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.”

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.”