Lessons from Dulgheriu v London Borough of Ealing – introducing ‘buffer zones’ to ban anti-abortion protests outside clinics
After a public consultation last year, Manchester Council has introduced a ‘buffer zone’ around Marie Stopes abortion clinic in Fallowfield, which sees a three-year ban against anti-abortion protests outside the clinic. The Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) came in to effect last Friday (9 October) to which anti-abortion campaign group, 40 Days of Life, declared their dissatisfaction and labelled the order as “draconian” and an infringement on “freedom of speech”. The next six weeks may see a legal challenge against the decision. If successful, to what extent will the case be considered as unlawful?
We can cast our minds back to the first case relating to PSPO and abortion facilities last year. In Dulgheriu v London Borough of Ealing, Ealing Council introduced a PSPO outside an abortion clinic, banning demonstrations that had distressed and impeded visitors to a local Marie Stopes clinic. The appellants argued that the Council had insufficient evidence to be reasonably satisfied that the behaviours of protestors had a detrimental impact on local people. The Court of Appeal considered the Council’s evidence base, including the public consultation and Equality Impact Assessment and upheld the legality of the UK’s first ‘buffer zone’.
It is safe to say that Manchester Council took the same approach as Ealing Council and acted upon evidence when introducing the buffer zone. The Council weighed the rights and interests of protestors, those who work at and use the clinic and local residents. The 8-week public consultation sought views from service users, clinic staff and local residents on the PSPO, which garnered over 2,000 responses, with 72 per cent expressing support for the ban. Respondents were asked to consider the behaviours of the protesters, including acts of approval/disapproval of issues related to abortion services, verbal interference with staff members or service users of the clinic and acts of intimidation and harassment. 64% felt that their behaviour had a detrimental impact on their quality of life.
In our commentary on the Dulgheriu v London Borough of Ealing judgment, Institute Director, Rhion Jones, noted that the case might show the way to other councils facing the problem of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations on matters of local controversy. Indeed, this appears to be the case for Manchester, and we will certainly be keeping an eye out for any legal challenges. On the other hand, free speech is an important principle, and striking the right balance is yet another reason why consultation may be better than confrontation.
Plans to ban anti-abortion protests outside a clinic in Fallowfield have moved a step closer after the city council agreed to introduce a ‘buffer zone’ around the premises.
Staff and patients of the Marie Stopes clinic on Wynnstay Grove have endured ‘intimidation and harassment’ from anti-abortion protesters for more than a decade, the town hall has found.
Shouts of ‘murderer’ and the throwing of ‘holy water’ have been reported outside the clinic, with some of those affected by the behaviour describing it as ‘emotionally and mentally draining’.
The campaigners belong to the 40 Days For Live movement which sees people flock to the clinic every year for vigils which the group says are ‘peaceful, prayerful and legal’.
But in the last two years Manchester council has been gathering evidence to support a public space protection order (PSPO) being brought in at Wynnstay Grove.
Displaying graphic abortion-related images, carrying out ‘prayer vigils,’ intimidating staff members and clinic users or recording them without their consent would all fall under behaviour banned by the order.
Councillor Nigel Murphy, deputy leader of Manchester council, said: “The overriding priority of Manchester council is to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our residents. No one should have to put up with behaviour which has a negative impact on them or their environment. After looking at the evidence and taking into account what people have told us, the decision has been taken to introduce a PSPO around Wynnstay Grove and the surrounding area. It has been a long process and I am grateful to the people who took part in the consultation we ran to ensure this was the right decision.”
The order, which will come into effect on Friday October 9, will last for three years and cover all of Wynnstay Grove and Wilmslow Road from its junction with Willow Bank to the Sherwood Street junction and Ladybarn Road.
But over the next six weeks appeals can be made to the High Court by interested parties to challenge the decision to implement the PSPO.
In 2018 Ealing council in London became the first local authority to introduce a PSPO around an abortion clinic after overcoming a legal challenge by religious activists who said the ban interfered with their right to freedom of expression.
More than 2,000 people responded to a public consultation on the PSPO last year with 72 per cent of people expressing support for the ban.
An individual who used the clinic six years ago described the ‘difficult day’ when they visited the Marie Stopes clinic and urged the council to ‘put a stop’ to the protests.
They said: “As I entered they were standing across the road and had pictures and shouted at me. They’re entitled to their opinions but they should not be allowed to stand there in judgement of law abiding people. The care I received from the clinic was excellent. The only negative part of the day was being subjected to their intimidation. The memory of how they were that day will always be with me. I am crying writing this.”
Another said: “It had a detrimental effect on my mental health and grieving process as I felt like a monster for simply doing what was best for me at the time.”
Meanwhile the council’s consultation received almost 1,100 responses from the pro-life group Be Here For Me, which describes itself as ‘mothers against the ban on help outside abortion clinics’.
Their responses said the PSPO would infringe on freedom of speech and the right to protest, while also stopping women from seeking the support of campaigners.
Robert Colquhoun, the international director at 40 Days for Life, said last year that the pro-life organisation also believes in freedom of speech
Speaking in June, he added: “We organise peaceful, prayerful and legal vigils outside abortion clinics and have done in Manchester for 10 years. In that time we haven’t had a single substantiated case of harassment anywhere in the UK.”
Article originally appeared on Manchester evening News
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