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Women's groups join legal fight over sex law

By Alan Erwin

Two women's rights organisations are to feature in a High Court challenge to a new law making it illegal for men to pay for sex in Northern Ireland, it has emerged.

Space International, a group set up to campaign for those abused through prostitution, and Equality Now, have been granted intervener status in proceedings brought by sex worker Laura Lee.

Ms Lee is seeking to judicially review Stormont legislation that criminalises her clients.

Her lawyers claim amendments to the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act breach her human rights to privacy and freedom from discrimination. Northern Ireland is currently the only UK region to make the purchase of sex a criminal offence.

The legislative change was introduced in 2015 in a private member's bill brought before the Assembly by Democratic Unionist peer and Stormont MLA Lord Morrow.

Although it shifts the legal burden away from prostitutes, they believe it will put them at heightened risk from customers using fake names to avoid identification.

Ms Lee, a 39-year-old Dublin-born law graduate, has been a sex worker for two decades. She now operates in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Her legal team argue the new law exposes prostitutes to greater risk of violence.

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

A full hearing of the case will be listed for a date later this year.

In court yesterday it emerged that SPACE (Survivors of Prostitution-Abuse Calling for Enlightenment), an organisation formed in Dublin, and Equality Now, which fights for civil, economic, political and social rights of women and girls, will be represented in the case.

Counsel for the groups, David Scoffield QC, told Mr Justice Maguire they were "well placed" to provide information on the impact of prostitution.

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