Police have apologised to four people who were handed Covid-19 fines for staging a protest outside a court hearing relating to the toppling of a statue of slave trader Edward Colston.
Avon and Somerset Police admitted they had “misinterpreted the regulations” and that fines handed to Rowland Dye, 68, Taus Larsen, 43, Ros Martin, 60, and Paula Richardson, 61, were “unlawful”.
The four were arrested outside Bristol Magistrates’ Court on January 25 this year and issued with fixed penalty notices (FPNs).
In a statement issued on Thursday, the force said at the time, when England was in lockdown, it believed all forms of in-person protest were illegal.
It said: “Officers had an honest belief the individuals were committing an offence under (Covid-19 legislation).
“However, we now accept we misinterpreted the regulations and that the arrests and the issuing of fixed penalty notices were unlawful.”
It continued: “We have apologised to them and explained officers’ actions were motivated purely by a desire to protect the health of the public at the height of the pandemic.”
A statement from solicitors firm Bhatt Murphy, acting for Ms Martin and Ms Richardson, said: “This arose because the arresting officers had been briefed by the chief constable that the coronavirus regulations in force at that time banned all forms of in-person protest.
“Under threat of judicial review, the chief constable now accepts that this was an erroneous interpretation of the regulations applicable at that time and that a total ban on protest breached Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.”
The legal challenge was also supported by the anti-racism charity Sari.
Ms Martin said: “In the week that justice has been served for George Floyd, it is vital that the right to peaceful protest in support of the Colston Four has prevailed.
“It is fundamental to our democracy. The locking up of peaceful protesters should never happen”
Ms Richardson said: “As we remember Stephen Lawrence today, peaceful protest must never be silenced by the Government or the police at any time. It is an essential part of what it means to be a caring, conscious citizen.”
Bhatt Murphy said the four had worn masks and observed social distancing, and the protest had involved playing music, writing chalk messages on the pavement and holding placards.
Mr Larsen said: “The whole thing was ridiculous. I wasn’t posing any risk to the public, but the police put me in a position which increased the risk to me and to the officers dealing with me.”
Mr Dye said: “Like a lot of Bristolians I think that statue should have come down a long time ago and I wanted the Colston Four to see there were people supporting them when they arrived at court.”
On the date of the arrests, Rhian Graham, 29, Milo Ponsford, 25, Jake Skuse, 36, and Sage Willoughby, 21, had been in court charged with criminal damage for pulling down the Colston statue.
The bronze memorial to the 17th-century slave merchant was toppled during a Black Lives Matter protest on June 7 last year, before being dumped in Bristol Harbour.
The four defendants deny the charge and are due to stand trial in December.