Organisers of a vigil for Sarah Everard are seeking a court order to assert their right to protest after the Metropolitan police reversed their position on allowing the event to go ahead. The possible challenge comes at a time of mounting concern about the police and the government using the pandemic to curtail the right to protest.
In normal times, what is the right to protest?
Assembling with other people for a common purpose is considered a cornerstone of democracy. This right to protest is protected by the Human Rights Act under articles on freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. The police have a duty to uphold these individual rights and must take steps to enable peaceful protests. But the right to protest is a qualified right not an absolute one, which means the authorities can restrict it if they can show their action is proportionate and in the public interest.
Do the coronavirus rules ban protests?
The ban on meeting up with more than one other person outside, and previous limits on the numbers allowed to gather, appears to represent a blanket ban on organising or taking part in protests. This has never been tested in court, so the law is unclear.
What powers can the police use to stop protests?
Under the coronavirus regulations, the police can issue a fine of £10,000 for anyone organising a gathering of more than 30 people in a public place. Dozens of such fines have been issued in the past few months for people organising parties, raves and protests. The police can also issue fixed-penalty notices to anyone taking part in such gatherings.
What happened during last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests?
The killing of George Floyd by American police prompted tens of thousands of people to take to the streets in the UK in support of black people’s rights. Hundreds of people were arrested during the demonstrations and many were subjected to police tactics such as kettling. The home secretary, Priti Patel, claimed many people taking part were “thugs and criminals”, and she told parliament that the demonstrations were illegal.
What is Reclaim These Streets?
It is a campaign group that wants to hold a gathering on Clapham Common and a minute of silence to remember Sarah Everard and all women lost to violence. It describes itself as a “group of women who wanted to channel the collective grief, outrage and sadness in our community”.
Is it allowed to hold the vigil?
Initially the Met told the group it was “trying to navigate a way” to allow the vigil to take place. But on Thursday the police said the planned gathering would be unlawful and their “hands [were] tied” by Covid regulations. After a crowdfunding campaign, human rights lawyers acting for the group challenged this interpretation of the rules. They are seeking a high court order confirming that the Met’s understanding of the law is wrong.
Does the government want to curtail the right to protests?
Human rights campaigners say yes. They are concerned that ministers are using the pandemic as a pretext to severely weaken the right to protest. They are particularly alarmed by this week’s police, crime, sentencing and courts bill, which would give the home secretary power to create laws to define “serious disruption” that police could then use to impose conditions on protests.
These fears were underlined when plans for policing protests outlined the “need to develop” covert intelligence methods, and cited the use of facial recognition technology – despite a ruling that this breached privacy rights.