A sex worker’s legal challenge to a new law criminalising clients in Northern Ireland was put on hold today after a last-minute intervention by Stormont’s First and Deputy First Ministers.
Laura Lee issued unprecedented judicial review proceedings in a bid to quash legislation making it illegal for men to pay for prostitutes.
But the case was adjourned at the High Court in Belfast after a judge was told Attorney General John Larkin QC has been instructed to oppose her challenge on behalf of Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness.
Lawyers for Ms Lee, a 38-year-old Dublin-born law graduate, claimed it was a “highly improper and unorthodox” attempt to stop the action advancing to a full hearing.
As he put the case back until next month, Mr Justice Maguire requested full reasons for an intervention made on the eve of the hearing.
He said: “I accept that this application made on behalf of the Attorney General who is acting for the First Minister and Deputy First Minister has not been accompanied with any clear or cogent explanation as to the course of events.”
Ms Lee is seeking a ruling that the law brought in last year after being championed by Democratic Unionist peer and Stormont assembly member Lord Morrow should be struck down.
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 them 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.
Counsel for the Department of Justice, against whom the challenge is directed, confirmed in court it was not opposing the granting of leave on the basis that an arguable case was established.
Tony McGleenan QC explained that otherwise Justice Minister David Ford would be facing a position of trying to defend a legislative clause he had opposed.
Based on that concession, Steven McQuitty, for Ms Lee, criticised the attempt by another branch of Stormont to become involved.
“My client is deeply concerned at the proposed, grossly late intervention on the part of the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister,” he said.
“We say it’s highly improper and unorthodox, effectively OFMDFM are seeking to resist the grant of leave against the Department of Justice.”
However, with a potential devolution issue being raised, the judge held that an opportunity should be given to explain reasons for the late move.
Outside court a disappointed Ms Lee, who travelled from Scotland for the hearing, described the motivation for her legal proceedings.
“I brought this challenge because sex workers are in danger,” she said.
“We are compelled to work by ourselves and only in the last week have we seen another murder in Scotland of a lady working by herself.
“I personally am in danger, I campaigned long and hard against Lord Morrow’s bill, but I was left with no choice but to bring this action.”
Although she had wanted the case to go ahead, Ms Lee accepted why it was put on hold.
“I understand there are submissions to be made by both sides and the legal process must be followed,” she said.
“I’m disappointed because I wanted to push on, but I will return to court on March 14.”
Her solicitor, Ciaran Moynagh, insisted the Department of Justice’s position was a “positive outcome”.
He added: “It’s highly regrettable that the Attorney General on behalf of OFMDFM has saw fit to cause the adjournment at such late notice.”