Climate activist receives apology from Metropolitan Police Commander following admitted unlawful interference with protest rights


T/Commander Karen Findlay of the Metropolitan Police has apologised for the unlawful interference with the rights of Ms Ella Eason, a climate activist, after Extinction Rebellion’s ‘Greta Voyage’ protest procession, was stopped on 5 September 2020 due to an alleged breach of the Covid-19 regulations in force at the time.

The Greta Voyage was a protest procession involving a group of environmental activists linked to the Extinction Rebellion movement. The procession involved activists pushing a 20-foot mock-up lightship (the ‘Greta Lightship’) from Brighton to East London. The Greta Voyage set off from Brighton on 29 August 2020 and was due to reach their destination in East London by 5 September 2020. The purpose of the Greta Voyage was to sound the alarm about the climate emergency and encourage social and political change. This was an entirely peaceful protest.

Before the Greta Voyage commenced, organisers took extensive measures to engage with the Metropolitan Police to ensure they were complying with all legal requirements in place at the time, including the Covid-19 Regulations. Steps taken included preparing risk assessments to mitigate the risk of spreading Covid-19, as required by the Covid-19 Regulations in force at that time. 

Despite extensive engagement with the Metropolitan Police and provision of multiple risk assessments, officers from the Metropolitan Police stopped the Greta Voyage on 5 September 2020 claiming that activists had breached the Covid-19 Regulations by having more than 30 people involved in the procession. Officers initially claimed that all processions involving more than 30 people were unlawful, despite the Covid-19 Regulations allowing processions with more than 30 people where a Covid-19 risk assessment had been prepared. Officers then asserted that the risk assessments provided were not sufficient, without providing any reasons for this or further information.

Although activists were confident they had complied with all legal requirements, they made attempts to compromise with the officers by suggesting that the procession be split into groups of fewer than 30 persons. Despite these attempts, officers took the view that the Covid-19 Regulations had already been breached and so the Greta Voyage would be stopped and the Greta Lightship would be seized. Officers also threatened any person considered to be involved in the organisation of the procession with a fine. This approach was in stark contrast with the official stance that officers should use the four E’s (Engage; Explain; Encourage; and, Enforce) to encourage compliance with Covid-19 Regulations before seeking to issue fines.

T/Commander Findlay acknowledged that at the time of the incident, officers were required to balance the protection of the public from the spread of Covid-19 with the requirement to observe the right to protest enshrined in the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European Convention on Human Rights. However, she confirmed that the “proportionality of the officers’ intervention was not properly considered and, as a consequence, the interference . . . was unlawful”. Consequently, T/Commander Findlay offered her apologies on behalf of the Metropolitan Police for “identified failings in striking this balance” and expressed regret for the impact this failing had on Ms Eason.

Ms Eason instructed ITN Solicitors to write to the Metropolitan Police to challenge the lawfulness of their interference with her protest rights. Following pre-action correspondence, the Metropolitan Police admitted liability for her claim and provided the apology discussed above.

Sam Hall of ITN Solicitors said: “This apology from a senior officer within the Metropolitan Police comes at an important time for the protection of protest rights and confirms that police officers must consider the proportionality of their actions before interfering with the rights of protestors.”

This client was represented by Sam Hall of ITN Solicitors. ITN’s Civil Liberties and Human Rights department undertakes a wide variety of work on the right to protest. If you have an issue you would like to discuss, please contact us here.


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