Campaigner’s death ends court battle against NI prostitution laws

Laura Lee, who brought the legal case, died last month at the age of 39
Laura Lee, who brought the legal case, died last month at the age of 39

A legal battle over Northern Ireland’s prostitution laws is to end with the death of a sex worker who took the case, it has emerged.

Laura Lee’s challenge to legislation which criminalised her clients was formally withdrawn at the High Court in Belfast.

Mr Justice McCloskey said: “In light of the regrettable demise of the applicant, and by consent, the court will order a dismissal of the judicial review.”

Ms Lee, a Dublin-born law graduate, passed away last month at the age of 39.

A campaigner for the rights of prostitutes, she had worked in the sex industry for two decades.

In September 2016 she secured High Court permission to challenge a new law making it illegal for men to pay for sex in Northern Ireland.

The Province is the only part of the UK to make the purchase of sexual services a criminal offence.

The legislative change was introduced in 2015 in a private member’s bill brought before the Assembly by DUP 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.

Lawyers representing Ms Lee claimed amendments to the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act breached her human rights to privacy and freedom from discrimination.

Her legal challenge was directed against the Department of Justice – even though former minister David Ford opposed the new legislative clause.

A full hearing of the case had been due to take place later this year.

Women’s rights organisations SPACE International, a group set up to campaign for those abused through prostitution, and Equality Now were also set to feature after being granted intervener status.

But with no-one in a position to replace Ms Lee in the case, counsel confirmed on Thursday that all parties were in agreement about proceedings being ended.

Outside court her solicitor, Ciaran Moynagh, said: “We have worked very hard to get us to a place where we could continue with this judicial review, not only in Laura’s memory but to succeed in her goal of protecting vulnerable sex-workers in Northern Ireland.

“The blunt legislation that continues to exist makes it a crime to pay for sex. We continue to believe it not only breaches the human rights of sex workers but puts them at increased risk of violence as the industry is driven underground.”

Mr Moynagh added: “Laura Lee provided a courageous voice for a community which so often feels trapped in the shadows.

“We continue to be open to working with a similarly brave individual who feels able to put their head above the parapet.”