Prosecution of Sarah Everard vigil attendees ‘discontinued’

·4 min read
Dania Al-Obeid surrounded by police - Dylan Martinez/Reuters
Dania Al-Obeid surrounded by police - Dylan Martinez/Reuters

The prosecution of six protesters who attended a Sarah Everard vigil has been dropped as the lawyer for two of the women said it was wrong for their cases to be dealt with using a secret court process.

The Crown Prosecution Service said that it was not in the public interest to proceed. The protesters had been accused of breaking lockdown rules by attending the vigil for the murder victim on Clapham Common in south London on March 13 2021.

Some were previously convicted behind closed doors under the Single Justice Procedure (SJP) and argued they were not allowed to plead not guilty to the charges.

They were due to face trials to overturn the convictions but the CPS has now informed the protesters' lawyers that the prosecutions had been "discontinued".

'Legal test was not met'

The CPS said that the "legal test" for prosecution had not been met, adding: "We have a duty to keep cases under continuous review and we concluded that our legal test for a prosecution was not met."

Met Police Assistant Commissioner Louisa Rolfe said the decision to pursue a prosecution is "entirely a matter for the CPS".

"We know how important it was for people to remember Sarah Everard and voice their anger," she said in a statement.

"Officers took very seriously their duty to safeguard the public during the pandemic and to balance this with the rights of individuals."

On Sunday the protesters' barrister Pippa Woodrow, of Doughty Street Chambers, told The Telegraph that the police's attempts to criminalise her clients were "absurd" and said the SJP should never have been used against people accused of Covid offences.

Sarah Everard vigil - Justin Tallis/AFP
Sarah Everard vigil - Justin Tallis/AFP

SJP cases are dealt with by a single magistrate using papers without either party having to attend court for a hearing.

The Telegraph revealed earlier in 2022 that in the third quarter of 2021 a record 60 per cent of magistrates’ court cases were decided with the process – up to 40,000 cases a week – from non-payment of television licence fees to speeding, common assault and truancy.

Ministers have sought to speed up justice and clear the backlog of post-pandemic cases, but they now accept that at least 10 per cent of the Covid laws cases decided with the process contained errors. Miss Woodrow said: "One of the really scary things about it is we don't know how many people have been effectively criminalised by this process.

"These may not be the worst cases. We've been able to reverse the convictions relatively quickly here, but there may well be people with worse stories that we are unaware of as there is so little transparency in the SJP process.

"When it was introduced it was expressly for uncontroversial, low-level offences.

"But we have gone quite wrong in the massive expansion of the SJP, and in particular their almost automatic use for Covid prosecutions which are anything but uncontroversial and straightforward because they almost always affect basic human rights and are so wide ranging and draconian. It shouldn't have been used over the course of the pandemic in this way."

Met could face damages

The Met could now face costly damages claims for unlawful arrest and causing physical and emotional harm over its decision to charge the group for flouting Covid rules.

Ms Woodrow said damages could be sought for unlawful arrest and that an assessment of any physical and mental harm unlawfully caused to the claimants would be needed to determine the amount of compensation claimed.

The claims are currently at a "pre-action" stage where parties discuss potential settlements before legal papers are filed.

Dania Al-Obeid, one of the protesters, described the CPS decision to discontinue her case as a "victory".

"This is a victory in its own right but it doesn't hold the Met accountable for their actions at the vigil or for their decisions to criminalise me and others for standing up and speaking out over a year later," she told The Observer.

She is now taking legal action against the Met over its policing of the vigil and conduct towards her.

Sarah Everard was 33 when she was abducted, raped and murdered by Wayne Couzens, a serving police officer, on March 4 2021. He is now serving a whole life sentence.

The vigil had originally been organised by Reclaim These Streets but was cancelled after the Met said it should not go ahead and no definitive answer on the matter was provided by the High Court. The group faced fines of £10,000 each and possible prosecution if it went ahead.

Instead hundreds of people turned up throughout the day spontaneously, and officers did not intervene for the first six hours.

Many came to lay flowers, with the Duchess of Cambridge also paying her respects. Police were later accused of heavy-handedness after they bundled protesters to the ground and arrested them when they refused to leave that evening.