Belfast Telegraph

Sex worker Laura Lee's challenge to new prostitute law put on hold

By Alan Erwin

A sex worker's bid to overturn a new law criminalizing clients in Northern Ireland has been put on hold amid uncertainty over who the challenge should be directed against.

Papers are now to be served on the Stormont Assembly following arguments that it is the proper body to respond to Laura Lee's unprecedented legal action.

Adjourning the case, Mr Justice Maguire said on Monday: "It's necessary to consider these points and make sure we get it right before we set off."

Ms Lee, a 38-year-old Dublin-born law graduate, wants the High Court to quash legislation making it illegal for men to pay for prostitutes.

The amended law was introduced last year in a private member's bill brought before the Assembly by DUP peer and Stormont MLA Lord Morrow.

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

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

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

Ms Lee's legal team contend that the amendments to the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act breach her human rights entitlements to privacy and freedom from discrimination.

They also allege a failure to comply with equality law.

At present the challenge is directed against the Department of Justice - even though it opposed the new legislative clause.

Last month it emerged that Stormont's First and Deputy First Ministers were to mount stronger opposition to the judicial review proceedings.

And Attorney General John Larkin QC was in court on Monday after being instructed by Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness to resist the legal action.

But following preliminary legal discussions it emerged that the challenge may need to be focused elsewhere.

Even though the Department of Justice has responsibility for criminal law, the judge stressed how the amended legislation came about through a private member's bill.

He suggested that the case may have been taken against the wrong party.

Mr Justice Maguire then backed a submission by the Attorney General that papers should be served on the Assembly itself.

Acknowledging Ms Lee and her supporters who had attended court, he said it was frustrating but necessary to put the challenge on hold.

"I feel it's of significance that we establish whether there is one respondent and who it is, or more than one and who they are," he added.

The case was adjourned for a further hearing next month to decide who should be involved in the case.

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