Liberty's statement on Ealing PSPO intervention

24 June 2019

On 10 April 2018, Ealing Borough Council became the UK’s first local authority to use a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) to ban protest activity outside of an abortion clinic. On 16-17 July 2019 the Court of Appeal will consider whether that PSPO is lawful.

We have filed written submissions in the case, arguing that the privacy rights of those attending the abortion clinic must be protected, but that the PSPO is too broad and goes too far in curtailing the fundamental right of all people to protest in public spaces.

The PSPO bans anyone from doing certain things within a 100m radius of the abortion clinic. For example, it makes it a criminal offence to engage in any act of approval or disapproval relating to abortion services, including praying. Such acts do not need to be offensive or threatening or intimidating - a single person holding a silent prayer vigil within the exclusion zone can now be given a Fixed Penalty Notice or be prosecuted in the Magistrates’ Court and face a fine of up to £1,000.

This was a very difficult decision for us. We stand unequivocally and unapologetically behind the right to seek access to abortion services. We campaign for abortion to be made available in Northern Ireland, and we support long-overdue reform to the Abortion Act 1967 to remove the onerous and old-fashioned obstacles that currently stand in the way of accessing abortion.

But we are also an organisation that is committed to upholding the right to free expression, to protest and to practice one’s religion. Those rights belong to everyone, regardless of whether we agree or disagree with their point of view. If we give the state too much power to override these rights, even in the pursuit of other important rights and values, we put everyone’s ability to express opinions and exercise religious liberty in jeopardy.

We are also a key voice in the campaign against the use of PSPOs, which are broad and dangerous powers that have been used to criminalise homelessness. The Ealing case will be the first time that the Court of Appeal considers PSPO legislation. The approach taken by the Court could have significant consequences for all local authorities using PSPOs to restrict our rights and we could not miss out on the opportunity to raise our concerns about the way the unchecked power of PSPOs can and will be used against the most vulnerable in our communities.

We therefore decided to apply for permission to intervene in the case – so that we could clearly set out our view on the relevant law and principles that should be followed by the Court.

This is a challenging case with important rights on both sides and our submissions reflect this. On the one hand, we disagree with those bringing the case, who argue that the users of the clinic don’t have privacy rights under the Human Rights Act. We believe very strongly that they do and we have told the Court why their privacy should be protected. On the other hand, we have explained why the breadth of the activities covered by the PSPO and the vague wording of some of the prohibitions lead to disproportionate and unlawful restrictions on protest and religious rights.

We recognise that we will receive criticism for taking this position. But the right to protest is fundamental to a democratic society, and that includes the right to express unpopular and offensive opinions. We cannot just defend the rights of the people we agree with.

Where women are intimidated and threatened on their way into abortion clinics the criminal law must step in to protect them. The police should never be afraid to act in such cases. But an overly broad and vaguely worded PSPO – the impact of which could be felt well beyond the clinic setting - is not the answer.