LONDON — The London police violated the human rights of the organizers behind a March 2021 vigil for a woman who was killed by a serving police officer as she walked home, the British High Court ruled on Friday, a decision that comes as the government seeks greater authority for the police to block protests.
The judgment comes at a particularly fraught time for London’s Metropolitan Police Service, which is dealing with the resignation of its chief, Cressida Dick, and a broader crisis of trust after allegations of misogyny, racism and bullying within the force.
Four leaders of Reclaim These Streets, the group that had organized the protest after the killing of the woman, Sarah Everard, took the police force to court after it canceled the vigil, saying their rights had been violated. The group celebrated the decision as “a victory for women.”
“Last March, women’s voices were silenced. Today’s judgment conclusively shows that the police were wrong to silence us,” the organization said in a statement. “The decisions and actions by the Met Police in the run-up to the planned vigil for Sarah Everard last year were unlawful and the judgment sets a powerful precedent for protest rights.”
The decision was announced as Parliament is considering a controversial bill that would make it easier for the police to set limits on demonstrations and punish protesters who refuse to comply.
“The Government should take heed and drop its Policing Bill, which would give the police new powers that undermine our right to protest,” said Bell Ribeiro-Addy, a lawmaker whose constituency includes the area where Ms. Everard was abducted.
The court’s ruling came almost a year to the day after London police cracked down on a group of people who had gathered at a park in South London to remember Ms. Everard, just days after the discovery of her body.
Ms. Everard, 33, was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a Metropolitan Police Service officer, and her case came to encapsulate broader concerns about misogyny in the police force and violence against women and girls.
In response, Reclaim These Streets planned a vigil at Clapham Common. The police banned the event, citing coronavirus restrictions on gatherings that were in place at the time and threatening the organizers with fines of £10,000, about $13,000.
A spontaneous group gathered in the park anyway, quickly growing into the thousands as the day progressed. Although the event was largely peaceful and the crowd was allowed to remain for hours, the police began to disperse people, sometimes violently, as dusk fell.
When several women were arrested and handcuffed by the police, images of their arrest drew outrage and calls for an investigation into the police handling of the situation.
The High Court decision on Friday stands in stark contrast to an earlier investigation by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services, an independent watchdog group, which found that the police acted appropriately at the informal protest.
The ruling announced on Friday focused instead on the cancellation of the planned vigil, after four organizers — Jessica Leigh, Anna Birley, Henna Shah and Jamie Klingler — challenged the police in court.
The judgment found that the London Police had violated the organizers’ right to freedom of speech and assembly by preventing them from carrying out the vigil.
Judge Mark Warby, in a summary of the ruling, said that the Metropolitan Police Service “failed to perform its legal duty to consider whether the claimants might have a reasonable excuse for holding the gathering.”
He added that the police overstepped by making “statements at meetings, in letters, and in a press statement” that coronavirus regulations in force at the time “meant that holding the vigil would be unlawful.”
“Those statements interfered with the claimants’ rights because each had a ‘chilling effect’ and made at least some causal contribution to the decision to cancel the vigil,” he wrote.
David Allen Green, a legal commentator and lawyer with the London-based firm Preiskel & Co., called the ruling a “significant decision” that was rare in two ways.
“First, the court placed the police decision-making under anxious scrutiny, instead of its usual deference,” he explained in a message. “Second, it took the legal right to freedom of expression seriously, rather than just pay lip service. Considerable credit must be given to the claimants’s legal team for achieving this.”
The police have the right to appeal the decision. Louisa Rolfe, an assistant commissioner for the Metropolitan Police Service, said in a statement issued after the ruling that the force was still deciding whether to pursue the case further.
But women’s rights groups have said that at a moment when trust in the police, particularly among women, is at such a low point, that might not be the best course of action.
Kim Manning Cooper, the head of communications at Refuge, a charity that provides support for women and children who have been subjected to domestic violence, said that “the Met police opted to silence women’s voices” on the heels of Ms. Everard’s death.
“These actions were not only tone deaf, but as this ruling outlines, were an infringement upon women’s basic human rights,” she said in a statement. The police force, she added, “should think very carefully about its decision on whether to appeal this ruling, and the message that this would send to women and girls all over the country.”
The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said he welcomed the decision. The murder of Ms. Everard had damaged public trust in London’s police force, he said, and the way the police handled the vigil eroded that trust further.
“A series of events in the past year have damaged confidence in the police and urgent and wide-reaching action is needed to restore it,” he said. “I remain committed to doing everything in my power to hold the police to account and working with the Met to deliver on the changes needed.”
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