Sarah Everard: Met forced to halt ‘absurd’ convictions over vigil

·6 min read
<span>Photograph: Joshua Bratt/EPA</span>
Photograph: Joshua Bratt/EPA

Prosecutors have dramatically halted attempts by the Metropolitan police to criminalise people for attending the vigil for Sarah Everard in another humiliating blow for Britain’s biggest force.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) notified lawyers last week that it had “discontinued” attempts by the police to criminalise six protesters as it was not in the public interest.

The result is a significant victory for women who have described the Met’s determination to target those at the vigil as “absurd and damaging”.

The decision is also an embarrassing first blow for its new commissioner, Mark Rowley, whose force has remained keen to prosecute women protesting the kidnap, rape and murder of Everard at the hands of a serving Met officer.

Abuse survivor Dania Al-Obeid, who was handcuffed and arrested at the 13 March 2021 vigil and was one of those targeted by the Met, said: “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.”

Last night Al-Obeid formally notified the Met that she would now be launching legal action against the force over its policing of the vigil and conduct towards her.

Another of those targeted, Jeni Edmunds, said: “I’m glad the Met has been forced to drop this. That police used the same power abused to coerce Sarah Everard to her murder to arrest mourners at her vigil speaks volumes.”

Edmunds added: “I’m so exhausted from this going on for so long, but I am fortunate to be in a position where I am able to be defended. I know that where there is power granted, there is the potential to abuse it.”

Their barrister, Pippa Woodrow of Doughty Street Chambers, said: “I am delighted for Dania and Jeni that this ordeal is over and that the CPS has recognised they should never have been prosecuted. The police’s attempts to criminalise them have been absurd and damaging.

“It is to be hoped that the Met will now turn its focus and resources towards protecting women from violence rather than seeking to silence those who speak up against it, and towards rebuilding the trust damaged by their decisions in this case.”

The six were accused of breaking Covid lockdown rules by attending the vigil. Some were previously convicted behind closed doors under the Single Justice Procedure (SJP), including Al-Obeid, who had been unaware she had received a criminal record until contacted by media.

After arguing that she had not been given the chance to plead not guilty she, along with others, was due to face trial later this year to try to overturn the convictions.

Everard was abducted by Wayne Couzens as she walked home in south London, with the police officer pretending to be enforcing Covid rules to get her into his car. Couzens – now serving a whole-life sentence – drove the 33-year-old out of London, where she was raped and murdered.

A new campaign group, Reclaim These Streets, organised a vigil for Everard but was forced to cancel it after the Met said they would face fines of £10,000 each and possible prosecution if it went ahead. Instead a spontaneous vigil took place at Clapham Common that attracted hundreds, but the force’s decision to break up the crowd, the arresting of protesters and trampling of flowers they had laid provoked widespread outrage.

Edmunds added: “As a survivor of sexual violence like so many, every woman, every person, has the right to make it home safe at night. The police didn’t keep Sarah safe and they didn’t keep us safe [at the vigil] that night either. The police were called out for their actions, yet nothing changes.”

Details of the case and the police’s apparent eagerness to prosecute them has raised several serious questions, say lawyers. More than a year after the vigil, the high court ruled that Scotland Yard had misinterpreted Covid laws when it tried to block the event and also failed to consider the human rights of freedom of speech and assembly. Despite that judgment, the Met went ahead with convicting the six, in Al-Obeid’s case more than 15 months after the vigil.

“It was made clear at that point – if not before – that the police had simply not understood the importance in English law of people’s basic right to freedom of speech and assembly: to protest,” said Woodrow.

She added that the case presented grave questions over the Met’s use of powers which allowed it to prosecute people by a single magistrate and without any oversight.

Marketing manager Al-Obeid said: “I was devastated when I found out. To be convicted behind closed doors for standing up for my human rights, and our rights just to be safe from violence, felt extremely unjust. I didn’t feel like I could fight it – I felt like shrinking and taking up less space. I started to blame myself for ever speaking up. It brought back some of the terrible experiences in my past and took me to a dark place where I didn’t think my voice mattered or that I even had a right to speak.” Woodrow described the process as a “rubber-stamping exercise” and was concerned that the controversial SJP had been expanded and may have criminalised thousands of potentially innocent people without their knowledge.

Edmunds, who works at legal charity Inquest, said she was motivated to attend the vigil by the behaviour of Met officers towards murdered sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman and the case of Sarah Reed, who died by suicide after being assaulted by police and then imprisoned for self-defence against sexual assault.

Following the CPS’s intervention Al-Obeid announced she would be launching legal action against the Met and would transfer the £6,000 she has raised in a week from covering the costs of standing trial to sue the force over its policing of the vigil.

“The outpouring of support so far has been incredible,” she said.

Related: Police clash with mourners at Sarah Everard vigil in London

It follows the launch of similar legal action and a crowdfunding campaign by Patsy Stevenson, who was pictured being handcuffed and held down by two male officers at the vigil.

Stevenson said: “The Met fully believe that they’re in the right – or they know that they’re in the wrong and they’re trying to push and push.”

The civil claims against the Met by Al-Obeid and Stevenson are being brought by Rachel Harger from Bindmans, who said: “It is no small feat to take on litigating a well-resourced, publicly funded institution which is also heavily politically supported by the government of the day, and I sincerely hope that the public will come together and support Patsy, Dania and all those who were subjected to such appalling police conduct at the vigil as they seek to hold the police accountable.”

The Met has been contacted for comment.