Northern Ireland

Sex worker Laura Lee's court challenge is to go ahead

Sex worker Laura Lee Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Laura Lee argues that criminalising those who pay for sex puts prostitutes in greater danger

A woman has been given the go-ahead to challenge a new law making it illegal for men to pay for sex in Northern Ireland

Sex worker Laura Lee was granted leave to seek a judicial review of the Stormont legislation.

A date for a full hearing of the unprecedented legal action will be set later this year.

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

A judge ruled she has established an arguable case that amendments to the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act breach her human rights to privacy and freedom from discrimination.

The amended law was introduced last year after a private member's bill brought before the assembly by the Democratic Unionist Party MLA Lord Morrow.

'Increased danger'

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

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

Ms Lee's legal challenge is directed against the Department of Justice - even though former Minister David Ford opposed the new legislative clause.

However, Northern Ireland's Attorney General, John Larkin, representing the First and Deputy First Ministers, claimed proceedings should be thrown out at the first stage.

He insisted no unlawful act had been identified, and suggested the Act brought in by Lord Morrow provided Ms Lee, 38, with greater protection from any abusive behaviour.

Mr Larkin also submitted that protections under the European Convention on Human Rights do not cover sex for hire.

Ruling on the application for leave to seek a judicial review, the judge acknowledged the Attorney General's points had "considerable force".

But he held that the arguments advanced by Ms Lee's legal team were strong enough to meet the "modest threshold" of securing the right to progress their case.

The judge stressed his verdict was no indication that she will ultimately succeed.

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