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Gay blood ban: Edwin Poots 'acted irrationally' by prohibiting gay men from donating, court hears

Published 12/11/2015

Edwin Poots said that the early release scheme risked showing that the country was soft on crime
Edwin Poots said that the early release scheme risked showing that the country was soft on crime

Lifting the lifetime ban on gay men giving blood in Northern Ireland would increase the risk of a contaminated donation getting through just once every 15,000 years, the Court of Appeal heard today.

Senior judges were told former Health Minister Edwin Poots' acted irrationally in maintaining the prohibition because the threat was "infinitesimal".

Lawyers for a homosexual man at the centre of the legal battle also claimed Mr Poots' decision was a "knee-jerk reaction" which went against the advice of his officials and experts.

Attempts are being made to overturn a finding that the Democratic Unionist MLA did not have power to keep the lifetime ban on donations from homosexual men.

The High Court ruled that his decision was "infected" with apparent bias.

Mr Poots was also held to have breached the ministerial code by failing to take the issue before the Stormont Executive, and seemingly influenced by his Christian beliefs in maintaining the blanket ban.

In 2011 the prohibition on donations from gay men, put in place during the 1980s AIDS threat, was lifted in England, Scotland and Wales following recommendations by the advisory committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs (SaBTO).

It was replaced by new rules which allow blood from men whose last sexual contact with another man was more than a year ago.

But Mr Poots maintained the ban in Northern Ireland on the basis of ensuring public safety.

The findings against him were made in a legal action taken by a homosexual man granted anonymity in the case and referred to as JR65.

Challenges to the verdict have been continued by Mr Poots' DUP ministerial successors and the British Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

A panel of three appeal judges are examining issues about whether authority for blood policy is a devolved matter.

Responding for JR65 today, David Scoffield QC claimed the former Minister's decision was so disproportionate to be unreasonable.

Based on medical evidence, he argued, introducing a one-year deferral period could actually lead to enhanced compliance and increased safety.

"The Minister's own professional adviser was supporting the change, the chief medical officer was supporting the change," he said.

It was contended that Mr Poots concerns centred on a finding that, if the deferral period was brought in, the threat of contaminated blood getting into the supplies would increase by one in every billion donations.

"In Northern Ireland, where there are only around 64,000 donations per year, that's a risk of an infectious donation being realised about every 15,000 years," Mr Scoffield said.

"The risk is plainly, in our submission, infinitesimal."

Lord Chief Justice Morgan, Lord Justice Gillen and Lord Justice Weir were told Mr Poots failed to properly consult before maintaining the ban.

"It was, we say, a knee-jerk reaction," Mr Scoffield claimed.

Counsel for the former Minister has consistently rejected claims that his position may have been influenced by religious views.

But JR65's legal team introduced remarks Mr Poots made in the Assembly while allegedly talking about the case to support their claims of apparent bias.

The DUP MLA was recorded as saying: "There is a continual battering of Christian principles, and I have to say this - shame on the courts, for going down the route of constantly attacking Christian principles, Christian ethics and Christian morals, on which this society was based and which have given us a very good foundation."

Those words were at odds with the former minister maintaining his stance was based on ensuring patient safety rather than any religious views, according to Mr Scoffield.

He argued: "His comments in the Assembly can only be read as meaning this is a case based on, or at least touching upon, Christian principles or Christian morality."

The case continues.

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