Organisers of Saturday’s Reclaim These Streets had launched a legal challenge against the police after the force reversed its initial support for the event, claiming it was “unlawful” during the current coronavirus lockdown.
An online fundraiser raised more than £37,000 after the 33-year-old’s suspected kidnap and murder sparked a wave of collective grief and anger over the safety of women on the UK’s streets.
The vigil was planned to take place on Clapham Common bandstand in south London on Saturday at 6pm.
But on Friday the court refused the application by organisers to make “an interim declaration” that any ban on outdoor gatherings under coronavirus regulations is “subject to the right to protest”.
In a statement tweeted on Thursday evening, Reclaim These Streets had said it wanted to hold ”a short gathering, centred around a minute of silence to remember Sarah Everard and all women lost to violence”.
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.
But the court heard from lawyers representing the group who claimed the Met Police’s interpretation of Covid-19 restrictions went against human rights law.
Speaking to the High Court at the remote hearing, the claimants’ barrister Tom Hickman QC accepted the vigil would be a “gathering” under the coronavirus legislation, adding a risk assessment had been carried out and that the event would be “socially distanced”.
“Arrangements will be made to ensure that it is conducted in a Covid-secure manner,” he told Justice Holgate.
Lawyers representing the Met argued the current lockdown restrictions “plainly do limit to a significant extent” the “normal exercise of [...] rights of people wishing to exercise their rights to protest”, but added that there is no “blanket ban” on protest as far as the force is concerned.
“The situation is that what is proposed here is a gathering of unlimited number and, given great and very understandable public concern and public interest in what has happened, [...] it would not be at all surprising if the numbers were in the thousands,” barrister George Thomas said.
In the ruling on Friday, the judge refused to make a declaration that an alleged policy by the Metropolitan Police of “prohibiting all protests, irrespective of the specific circumstances” is unlawful.
Mr Justice Holgate said the organisers were told by police that “the vigil would be illegal and that their ‘hands were tied’ by Covid-19 regulations”.
He added the four claimants “were told that, as organisers, they would be liable to be issued with £10,000 fixed penalty notices”, and could also be arrested.
The group later said it was in discussions with the Met to confirm how the event can proceed in a “proportionate and safe” way.
In a statement, Reclaim These Streets said: “The judge has made clear that the police must make their own decision about whether the protest can go ahead and that must include a proportionality balancing exercise.”
“We call on the police to act within the law now and confirm that they will work with us to ensure that the protest can go ahead within the context of the overwhelming public response to Sarah Everard’s death.”
Following the court’s decision, the Met said large gatherings could “risk undoing all the hard work to reduce the infection rate” and urged people to stay at home rather than attend a vigil.
A number of politicians have tweeted their support for Reclaim These Streets and other vigils planned across the UK including in Cambridge, Cardiff, Leeds, St Andrews, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Liverpool mayor Steve Rotheram wrote: “Given the understandable outpouring of anger, I support people’s right to protest… I would urge anybody planning to take part to do so in a Covid-safe way.”
Labour MP Claudia Webbe said the vigils “support the right of every woman and girl to walk our streets without fear of violence” and “are consistent with the right to protest”.
“Police should work with organisers to enable them to be COVID safe,” she tweeted.
Organisers had previously said there was an “about-face” by the police on the initial decision to allow the event to go ahead.
One of the organisers, Anna Birley, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that organisation for the vigil began on Wednesday evening, adding: “We proactively wrote to the police and the local council.
“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.
“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.”
Speaking to reporters at Queen’s University Belfast on Friday, Boris Johnson said he could “totally understand” why the case has triggered a “wave of feeling” on the issue of women’s safety.
“Like everybody, I’m shocked and appalled about the news from the Met about Sarah Everard,” he said.
“I think that the whole country will be united in their feeling for her friends, her family and will share their shock and their grief.
“I can see, and I totally understand, why this has triggered such a wave of feeling on this issue – on the issue of safety of women and safety of the streets.
“And I want to echo very much what Priti Patel said, which is that no woman should walk our streets in fear – every woman should feel able to walk our streets in safety.”
A spokesperson for the government said: “All of our thoughts are with Sarah’s family and friends at this terrible time, and the Government recognises why so many women and girls across the country want to pay their respects.
“We are still in the middle of a pandemic, which is why we urge people to do this safely and to continue to avoid mass gatherings.
“We have also reopened our nationwide call for views on tackling violence against women and girls. So many have bravely shared their experiences over recent days and the Government is listening.”
The suspect currently held in custody on suspicion of Sarah Everard’s murder and kidnap is a serving Met Police officer.