Prostitutes in Northern Ireland are being exposed to greater risk of violence by a new law criminalizing their clients, the High Court heard today.
A judge was told they face increased dangers from having to operate alone, with reduced abilities to screen those seeking out 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 currently the only UK region to make the purchase of sex a criminal offence.
The amended legislation was introduced last year in a private member’s bill brought before the Assembly by Democratic Unionist peer and Stormont MLA Lord Morrow.
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.
“We simply say the current law operates to make sex work in Northern Ireland more dangerous, particularly for women given most sex workers are women,” he said.
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.
The court heard Ms Lee was herself exposed to significant verbal abuse during one encounter.
She feared for her own safety but was able to avoid any violence.
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, and claimed the Act brought in by Lord Morrow provided Ms Lee with greater protection from any abusive behaviour.
“Put bluntly, she no longer has to put up with that sort of conduct. The path to the police station is smoothed and widened,” Mr Larkin submitted.
Referring to Ms Lee’s business model, the Attorney General emphasised how she is paid up front in cash for sexual services.
“She can’t sue for her fees, she can’t issue an invoice to a client asking him or her to pay up,” he said.
“Her business... is utterly unsupported by the common law and existing law of contract.”
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, contending that Ms Lee retains “sovereign choice” on whether to accept clients who don’t identify themselves.
The Attorney General added: “The applicant wants to continue to receive money from prostitution.
“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, but Lord Morrow I hazard would be very pleased indeed to know he stopped one or two women being trafficked into prostitution.”
Following submissions Mr Justice Maguire reserved judgment on the application for leave to seek a judicial review.