Anti-abortion activist sentenced
A high-profile anti-abortion campaigner has been ordered to do 100 hours' community service and pay £2,000 compensation after being convicted of harassing the director of a Marie Stopes clinic.
Bernadette Smyth, who leads the Precious Life group, had been warned she could face jail when she was convicted of two counts of harassment against Dawn Purvis last month.
But passing sentence at Belfast Magistrates' Court, Deputy District Judge Chris Holmes said he had taken into account Smyth's good character and clear record. However, he said he believed the case was above the threshold where only a fine could be issued.
The judge said: "You are somebody of impeccable character. You are somebody from an obviously good background and have worked very hard with the community over a long time. I am prepared to accept all of that."
A five-year restraining order banning Smyth, 52, from Suffolk Street in Ballymena, Co Antrim, from being within 20 yards of the the front door of the Belfast city centre clinic was also issued while another order preventing her from pestering, interfering or molesting Ms Purvis and others visiting the centre was handed out.
The judge said he hoped the community service team could utilise Smyth's talent.
The £2000 compensation has to be paid directly to Ms Purvis over the next six months.
During the case, which has been dogged by delay, Smyth, a mother of four children and grandmother of three, consistently denied harassing Ms Purvis on two separate occasions in January and February this year.
But the judge rejected defence claims that the verbal threat "you ain't seen harassment yet, darling" had not been designed to intimidate.
He also dismissed argument that Smyth had been "set up" and launched a scathing attack on how the case had been contested in a "vicious and malicious" fashion.
In her evidence, Ms Purvis said she had been left fearing for her safety.
Judge Holmes told the court he would not punish Smyth for fighting the prosecution. "I do not expect you to turn turtle," he added.
Despite the prosecution being taken, the court was told that daily protests have continued outside the Marie Stopes facility.
"It has not stopped," said Judge Holmes. "I am not saying you are involved but it is still ongoing and things need to be sorted out there."
Arguing for leniency and a "degree of mercy", defence barrister Seamus Lannon claimed there was no need for a restraining order as Smyth bore no ill will against Ms Purvis and there had been no repeat of the behaviour which constituted the complaint.
He said: "There is no need for such an order in this case. She at no time bears any ill will to Ms Purvis. That's her hard and fast position."
Mr Lannon also claimed to be baffled by a Probation Service report, which described his client in "glowing" terms but concluded she posed a high risk of re-offending.
He added: "It beggars belief that somebody in the Probation Service has come up with that conclusion. Either they have got it wrong or simply the word 'not' has been left out."
The defence lawyer also argued that Smyth had dedicated her life to helping the most vulnerable in society and revealed the court proceedings had caused immense distress and had taken its toll on her health.
He said "glowing" references from all sections of society had been submitted to the court.
Ahead of the hearing around 20 supporters gathered in a circle to pray in the corridor outside the courtroom in the Laganside complex.
Inside, the public gallery was packed to capacity. Smyth sat flanked by family, friends and pro-life supporters who had squeezed two and three on to a seat. She was dressed in a black suit jacket, navy frilled blouse and camel coloured knee-length pencil skirt with her blonde hair tied up in a messy bun.
She stood beside her solicitor Aiden Carlin as sentence was passed and nodded when asked by the judge if she consented to accept a community service order.
Afterwards, as Smyth exited the courtroom accompanied by her legal representatives, there were cheers and applause from anti-abortion campaigners.
Outside, Mr Carlin said his client maintained her innocence and intended to appeal.
He said: "We have lodged our application for appeal. We look forward to having this conviction overturned in due course.
"My client wants to thank all those people who provided her with such great letters, emails and encouragement over the last while."
Smyth declined to comment but left the area surrounded by supporters chanting 'abortion is murder'.
An appeal hearing is expected to take place next month.