LONDON (AP) — London police acted unlawfully when they used coronavirus restrictions to prevent a vigil in memory of a murdered woman, a court ruled Friday in a victory for the event's organizers and the right to protest.
The protest vigil was called after Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old London woman, was abducted and murdered in March 2021 by an off-duty Metropolitan Police officer as she walked home at night.
The crime shocked the country, angered many women and raised questions about a police force that unknowingly harbored a murderer in its ranks. Police officer Wayne Couzens pleaded guilty to Everard’s murder and was sentenced in September to life in prison with no chance of parole.
The group Reclaim These Streets attempted to organize a socially distanced vigil on the city’s Clapham Common, near where Everard was abducted. But the four main organizers canceled it after police told them they faced fines of 10,000 pounds ($13,000) each and possible prosecution for violating coronavirus restrictions.
A spontaneous vigil went ahead, attended by hundreds of people including Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, the wife of Prince William, who laid flowers. Police later moved in to disperse participants, arresting some. Images of women scuffling with police and being led away in handcuffs sparked wide criticism.
The four vigil organizers took the police to court, arguing the force’s decisions before the event breached their human rights to freedom of speech and assembly.
Two High Court judges agreed, ruling Friday that by telling organizers the protest would be unlawful, police “interfered with the claimants’ rights because each (statement) had a ‘chilling effect’ and made at least some causal contribution to the decision to cancel the vigil.”
The judges said the police force “failed to perform its legal duty to consider whether the claimants might have a reasonable excuse for holding the gathering.”
Theodora Middleton, a lawyer for the organizers, called the court ruling “a victory for women” and said it set “a powerful precedent for protest rights.”
The police force said it would consider whether to appeal.
Police handling of the Everard case was one of a string of controversies that have undermined public confidence in the force and led the head of the Metropolitan Police, Commissioner Cressida Dick, to announce her resignation last month.
Jill Lawless, The Associated Press