Pro-life campaigner loses challenge over harassment notices

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A pro-life campaigner has lost her High Court challenge to being issued with harassment warning notices over protests outside a Belfast abortion clinic.

PSNI decisions to serve forms on the woman and then store details on its database were lawful, a judge ruled.

Mr Justice Colton held that the Police Information Notices (PINs) had been appropriate, proportionate and valid steps in dealing with a dispute between two opposing groups.

He said: “They served the potential purposes of deterrence and retention of evidential material.”

Granted anonymity, the woman was seeking to judicially review the PSNI after being served with six separate PINs over incidents between January and October 2014.

She is a member of anti-abortion group Precious Life and participated in a series of so-called “prayer vigils” at the former Marie Stopes Clinic on Belfast’s Great Victoria Street.

Heated interactions ensued between staff and those gathered outside, with complaints and counter-complaints of hostility.

The centre, which offered sexual and reproductive healthcare and early medical abortions within Northen Ireland’s laws, closed at the end of last year.

Each of the notices issued on the woman advised her of an alleged harassment complaint, but were neither a court order nor a criminal record.

Charges can only be brought for an alleged course of conduct involving two or more incidents.

It was stressed that the woman has never been convicted or prosecuted for any of the incidents.

The PINs served on her were stored on a police electronic database but subsequently deleted in 2016.

Counsel for the woman argued that issuing and retaining the notices for a period had been unfair, contrary to police policy and a breach of her privacy.

A barrister representing the police countered that the form of warning fulfils two purposes of deterrent and evidential in the event of any continued behaviour.

The notice itself is not any form of adjudication on the allegation, but simply alerts the recipient that a complaint has been made.

Acknowledging the opposing views on the issue of abortion, Mr Justice Colton stressed both the right to peaceful protest and clinic staff’s entitlement to go to work without facing interference or intimidation.

He said: “Overall, in the context of what was an ongoing investigation in relation to potential harassment it seems to me that the issue of the PINs on both the applicant and on persons associated with the clinic was an appropriate and proportionate way of dealing with the dispute.”

Turning to the alleged breach of the woman’s human rights, the judge held there was a valid reason for retaining notices in connection with a prolonged period of demonstrations.

Refusing the judicial review application, he added: “Monitoring the protest required a considerable amount of police time.

“Retention of as much information as possible was therefore important and helped inform decision making about the protest.”