Northern Ireland news

New law exposes prostitutes in Northern Ireland to greater risk of violence, court hears

Sex worker rights campaigner Laura Lee at Belfast High Court on Friday. Picture by Hugh Russell

Prostitutes in Northern Ireland are being exposed to greater risk of violence by a new law criminalizing their clients, the High Court has heard.

A judge was told they face increased dangers from having to operate alone, with reduced abilities to screen those seeking their services.

The claims were made as a sex worker's unprecedented legal challenge to legislation making it illegal for men to pay for prostitutes got underway in Belfast.

Laura Lee's lawyers claim amendments to the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act breach human rights entitlements to privacy and freedom from discrimination.

But Attorney General John Larkin QC, representing the First and Deputy First Ministers, resisted her attempt to secure a judicial review.

He insisted protections under European law do not cover sex for hire. Northern Ireland is the only UK region to make the purchase of sex a criminal offence.

The amended legislation was introduced last year.

Although it shifts the legal burden away from prostitutes, they believe it will put them at heightened risk from customers using fake names to avoid identification.

Ms Lee, a 38-year-old Dublin-born law graduate, was accompanied by supporters for the first stage in her courtroom battle.

Mr Justice Maguire was told she has been a sex worker for two decades, and now operates in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

Her counsel, Steven McQuitty, stressed the case was not a debate about the morality or any perceived degradation of those involved in the trade.

The barrister set out three ways in which the risks have allegedly been heightened:

:: Sex workers have to increasingly operate alone, without the protection offered by brothel arrangements

:: Reduced opportunities to meet and screen clients without them being exposed to criminal liability

:: Prostitutes ability to share information being hit by customers remaining anonymous

Her legal challenge is directed against the Department of Justice - even though former Minister David Ford opposed the new legislative clause.

Counsel for the department, Tony McGleenan QC, did not oppose the case advancing to a full hearing, but stressed it was no indication of support for Ms Lee's action.

However, the Attorney General argued that proceedings should be thrown out at the first stage.

He insisted no unlawful act had been identified.

Responding to claims that customers are more likely to remain anonymous, Mr Larkin suggested those who are "hardly flowers of humanity" may always have been wary about being known.

He rejected claims that the law means men seeking to pay for sex will be more dangerous.

"The applicant wants to continue to receive money from prostitution," he said.

"The policy of the law designed to disrupt and, if possible, prevent human trafficking is to choke-off demand. Time will tell whether or not that works."

Following submissions Mr Justice Maguire reserved judgment on the application for leave to seek a judicial review.

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