London police unlawfully used COVID rules to bar vigil for murdered woman -court

Memorial site at the Clapham Common Bandstand, following the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard in London
Police detain Patsy Stevenson as people gather at a memorial site in London's Clapham Common park following the kidnap-murder of Sarah Everard, in London, Britain, March 13, 2021. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

LONDON, March 11 (Reuters) - London's police acted unlawfully when they used COVID-19 social-distancing rules to force campaigners to cancel an outdoor vigil for a woman who was raped and murdered by a police officer last year, a London court ruled on Friday.

Hundreds of people mostly women, including Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, gathered peacefully in defiance of the ban in a park on Clapham Common, which ended with police using heavy-handed tactics to arrest several women.

The March 2021 disappearance of Sarah Everard, 33, a marketing executive as she walked home shocked Britain and provoked a huge outpouring of dismay at the failure of police and wider society to tackle violence against women.

Wayne Couzens, a police officer whose job was to guard diplomatic premises in the British capital, was jailed for life without the possibility of parole for the abduction, rape and murder of Everard.

Police investigating the case later said that Couzens may himself have invoked COVID-19 protocols as an excuse to falsely arrest Everard, with politicians and campaigners saying that women's confidence in police had been shattered. read more

The campaign group Reclaim These Streets were forced to cancel its planned vigil by police who claimed that any gathering would breach social-distancing rules during the pandemic. The group said this amounted to a breach of their freedom of speech and assembly.

The group, who were threatened with fines and possible prosecution if the event went ahead, said the police had a "total disregard for women's human rights" and "they dug in their heels, closed ranks and got the law wrong".

Judge Mark Warby said London police had failed to properly interpret the COVID rules or assess whether the campaign group had a "reasonable excuse" for holding the vigil.

London's Metropolitan Police issued a statement saying it had worked hard during the pandemic to interpret and apply coronavirus regulations lawfully.

"The Met unreservedly endorses the principle that fundamental freedoms, such as those exercised by the claimants in this case, may only be restricted where it is necessary and proportionate for a lawful purpose," it said.

Reporting by Andrew MacAskill and Alistair Smout, editing by Mark Heinrich

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.