Women’s Aid has criticised the PSNI for failing to prosecute men who buy sex – a criminal offence in Northern Ireland since June.
Police say they will not be charging anyone – for an unspecified period – in order to “allow time for understanding and awareness” of the new law to take effect.
Instead, anyone arrested will be offered a caution or subjected to a potential rape investigation, depending on whether police believe the woman involved was consenting or under duress.
The law controversially aims to cut down trafficking and exploitation, but critics insist it will drive vulnerable people further underground.
Women’s Aid - a national charity which campaigns against domestic violence - said it is “extremely concerned” about reports that the PSNI is not enforcing the law.
The group said the law was democratically decided in the Assembly with cross-party support. It is “not for the PSNI to decide what laws they will and won’t enforce” a spokeswoman said.
“The police are not in a position to determine whether or not consent is present, particularly given how inapplicable the notion of consent is when applied to women groomed or coerced into the sex industry.
“The law applies to all people found buying sexual services, it does not exonerate those men who claim they think the woman was ‘consenting’ to sell sex services.
“Any watering down of this position is failing to protect victims in this situation. The new law is a means of protecting those who are afraid to disclose that they are not consenting parties, those who enter prostitution due to coercion, abuse or lack of other choices or options. It exists because our existing rape and trafficking legislation is insufficient to tackle such situations. If there is evidence of rape or sexual assault, police should seek prosecution of that perpetrator anyway, with or without this new law. The point is that the new law deliberately goes further to protect vulnerable women.”
The organisation rejected PSNI claims that there needs to be an unspecified period of not enforcing the law to allow for better “understanding and awareness” of it; the group said there had been “enormous press coverage” of the lengthy legislative debate.
PSNI Detective Chief Inspector Dougie Grant responded: “The implementation of the legislation is an ongoing process and we are working closely with the PPS in relation to this.”
Sex worker Laura Lee is to challenge the law in court. She declined to comment.