Stormont won’t feature in sex worker’s legal challenge

Laura Lee
Laura Lee

The Stormont Assembly will not be involved in a sex worker’s challenge to a new law criminalizing clients in Northern Ireland, it has been confirmed.

Laura Lee’s unprecedented legal action had been put on hold amid uncertainty over who the case should be directed against.

Attorney General John Larkin

Attorney General John Larkin

Papers were served on the Assembly following suggestions that it is the proper body to respond to the proceedings.

But Ms Lee’s barrister told the High Court on Tuesday that all sides have now agreed it should not feature.

Steven McQuitty said: “The Northern Ireland Assembly have indicated they do not wish to be involved in this litigation.”

He added that the case can advance to a contested application for leave to seek a judicial review, with both the Department of Justice and Stormont’s First and Deputy First Ministers as respondents.

Attorney General John Larkin QC has been instructed by Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness to resist the legal challenge.

He told Mr Justice Maguire that his appearance in the case was as counsel for Mrs Foster and Mr McGuinness.

Further arguments on the merits of the case are expected to be heard before the end of June.

Ms Lee, a 38-year-old Dublin-born law graduate, wants the High Court to quash legislation making it illegal for men to pay for prostitutes.

The amended law was introduced last year in a private member’s bill brought before the Assembly by Democratic Unionist peer and Stormont MLA Lord Morrow.

Northern Ireland is currently the only UK region to make the purchase of sex a criminal offence.

Although the law shifts the burden from prostitutes to their clients, sex workers believe it could leave more vulnerable to violence.

They fear it will drive the trade underground and expose them to increase danger by making it increasingly difficult to screen customers who may use fake names and disposable phones.

Ms Lee’s legal team contend that the amendments to the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act breach her human rights entitlements to privacy and freedom from discrimination.

They also allege a failure to comply with equality law.

The challenge is directed against the Department of Justice - even though it opposed the new legislative clause.

But in February it emerged that the First and Deputy First Ministers are to mount stronger opposition to the judicial review proceedings.