Prostitution in Northern Ireland

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Prostitution in Northern Ireland is governed by the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015, which makes it illegal to pay for sex in Northern Ireland.[1] Prior to the act coming into effect, prostitution in Northern Ireland was regulated by the same or similar laws to those in England and Wales, as it is elsewhere in the United Kingdom. At that time, prostitution in Northern Ireland was legal subject to a number of restraints which controlled certain activities associated with prostitution, such as soliciting, procuring, living on the proceeds of prostitution (pimping), exploitation of prostitutes, under-age prostitution, and keeping a brothel. However, devolution provided the opportunity for separate legislation in Northern Ireland.

Nature and extent[edit]

As elsewhere, accurate figures for the extent of prostitution in Northern Ireland are difficult to ascertain, given the covert nature of the activities, although the police estimated 40–100 people were working in the sex trade in 2010. As in other countries, street prostitution has declined in favour of off-street prostitution.[2] As with much of Europe, there appears to be a fair amount of mobility of prostitutes in and out of the territory, particularly in Belfast. While exact numbers are very hard to obtain, the 2014 research suggested between 300 and 350 people working on any particular day, the majority of whom were women, with the commonest age range being 25–30. The researchers found that under-age prostitutes were uncommon, and that most prostitutes did not start till they were of legal age.[3]


Despite the publicity given to the issue, there has been a paucity of research on prostitution in Northern Ireland. The Department of Justice carried out its own research published in 2011,[2] and in 2013, it commissioned a research study, which was carried out by the Queen's University Belfast, and released in October 2014 (Research into Prostitution in Northern Ireland).[3][4][5] The findings were dismissed by supporters of the Human Trafficking Bill, in particular Women's Aid[6][7] and the DUP.[8]

Current laws[edit]

The legal framework is governed by Part 5 (Ss. 58–64) of the Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 (S.I. 2008/1769 (N.I. 2)), as amended by the Policing and Crime Act 2009 (on 1 April 2010).[9] These create offences for loitering or soliciting in a street or public place for the purposes of prostitution (S. 59), soliciting from a motor vehicle (kerb crawling) (S. 60), organising, advertising, or recruiting into prostitution for the purposes of gain (S. 62), controlling a prostitute (S. 63), or keeping a brothel (defined as more than one person selling sexual services in a given location) (S. 64).


The Policing and Crime Act 2009 (S. 20) replaced Ss 60–61 of the Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 dealing with soliciting by a new offence, S. 60 "Soliciting":[10]

(1) It is an offence for a person in a street or public place to solicit another (B) for the purpose of obtaining B's sexual services as a prostitute.
(2) The reference to a person in a street or public place includes a person in a vehicle in a street or public place.

(3) A person guilty of an offence under this Article shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale.


The Policing and Crime Act 2009 (S. 15) created a new offence[9] by amending the Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 to include S. 64A "Paying for sexual services of a prostitute subjected to force etc.":[11]

(1)A person (A) commits an offence if—

(a)A makes or promises payment for the sexual services of a prostitute (B),
(b)a third person (C) has engaged in exploitative conduct of a kind likely to induce or encourage B to provide the sexual services for which A has made or promised payment, and
(c)C engaged in that conduct for or in the expectation of gain for C or another person (apart from A or B).

(2) The following are irrelevant—

(a) where in the world the sexual services are to be provided and whether those services are provided,.
(b) whether A is, or ought to be, aware that C has engaged in exploitative conduct.

(3) C engages in exploitative conduct if—

(a) C uses force, threats (whether or not relating to violence) or any other form of coercion, or.
(b) C practises any form of deception.

(4) A person guilty of an offence under this Article shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale.

Purchasing sex[edit]

Influenced by policies in Sweden, the Democratic Unionist Party Peer Maurice Morrow successfully campaigned for the criminalisation of purchasing sex in Northern Ireland.[12] The Northern Ireland Assembly voted in Morrow's private members bill, Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Further Provisions and Support for Victims) Bill. On 1 June 2015 the resulting Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015 was introduced. While prostitution was only one element of the Act, the Act also stated that soliciting and loitering were no longer offences and that a programme of support would be offered to those exiting prostitution. Clients would be subject to a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a fine of £1000.[13]

Justice Minister, David Ford, who had earlier commissioned a study of the issue,[14] expressed his opposition to clause 6, as did the police.[15][16] The commissioned research was carried out by Queen's University Belfast.[17] The Catholic Church supported the legislation,[18] alongside the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, and many women's groups such as Women's Aid[19] and Equality Now. Since it resembles legislation enacted in Sweden, a public debate on the merits of that law ensued,[20] in addition to discussion as to what the state of affairs in Northern Ireland actually was. The DUP consistently backed the proposal to criminalise the purchase of sex in Northern Ireland. Despite initial scepticism, Sinn Féin, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the Ulster Unionist Party, and the Traditional Unionist Voice all voted in favour of criminalisation. Only the Alliance Party, the Green Party, and NI21 opposed it. The Bill appeared to have public support, according to an October 2014 poll carried out by CARE.[6]

Paying for sexual services of a person

6.—(1) The Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 is amended as follows.

(2) For Article 64A (Paying for sexual services of a prostitute subjected to force etc.) substitute⁠—

“64A Paying for sexual services of a person

(1) A person (A) commits an offence if A obtains sexual services from a person (B) over the age of 18 in exchange for payment⁠—

(a) if the payment is made or promised by A; or

(b) if the payment is made or promised by a third party.

(2) Person A guilty of an offence under this article is liable⁠—

(a) on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale;

(b) to imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year or a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum, or both.

(3) In paragraph (1), "payment" means any financial advantage, including the discharge of an obligation to pay or the provision of goods or services (including sexual services) gratuitously or at a discount.

(4) For the avoidance of doubt, person B is not guilty of aiding, abetting or counselling the commission of an offence under this article.

(5) Within the first year of this offence coming into effect, the Department must raise awareness of this offence.

(6) The Department shall collect data to review the operation of this offence and report to the Assembly after this offence has been in effect for three years.".

The Bill passed First Reading in June 2013, and Second Reading on 24 September 2013. Submissions closed on 1 November 2013. The committee reported on 10 April 2014, with members divided on clause 6. The Justice Department continued to be opposed to clause 6.[21][22][23] Amendments were anticipated and introduced in October 2014, with the final consideration debate on 20 October. The vote on clause 6 was 81:10 to approve it.[24] 95% of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act 2015 came into effect on royal assent, but the criminalisation of the purchase of sex did not come into effect until 1 June 2015.

In September 2016, sex worker and law graduate Laura Lee brought a case to the Belfast High Court to re-evaluate the current prostitution laws in Northern Ireland, and to repeal Lord Morrow's law[25] that made the purchase of sex illegal in 2015. The hearing had been granted for a judicial review,[26] and the date was to be announced. Following the death of Laura Lee on 7 February 2017,[27] the legal challenge was withdrawn.[28]

Figures released by the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) in August 2016, showed that 10 men had been arrested under this legislation since it was introduced. Seven were referred to the PPS. Of those, no action was taken 3 cases, 2 men received cautions and the remaining two cases were being considered by a senior prosecutor.[29] The first prosecution for paying for the services of a prostitute was on 27 October 2017 in Dungannon Magistrates Court. District Judge John Meehan was due to hear the case at a later date.[30][31]


Ugly Mugs Ireland is a not-for-profit technology initiative that aims to improve the safety of sex workers in Ireland and the UK and reduce crimes committed against them, by bringing sex workers together to share information about potential dangers.[32]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Human Trafficking Bill receives Royal Assent". BBC News. 14 January 2015. Retrieved 27 January 2015.
  2. ^ a b Research paper investigating the issues for women in Northern Ireland involved in prostitution and exploring best practice elsewhere. Department of Justice January 2011
  3. ^ a b Research into Prostitution in Northern Ireland. Queen's University Belfast October 2014
  4. ^ Chris Kilpatrick (17 October 2014). "17,000 use prostitutes in Northern Ireland each year, says new study". Belfast Telegraph. Retrieved 28 November 2016.
  5. ^ "Researchers suggest 17,500 men pay for sex in NI each year". BBC News. 17 October 2014. Retrieved 28 November 2016.
  6. ^ a b McMahon, Victoria (17 October 2014). "Vast majority back calls to make paying for sex illegal". Retrieved 28 November 2016.
  7. ^ "Women's Aid slams 'shocking' DOJ prostitution report". Belfast Newsletter. 17 October 2014. Retrieved 28 November 2016.
  8. ^ Chris Kilpatrick (17 October 2014). "David Ford in bid to scupper Bill making it illegal to pay for sex". Belfast Telegraph. Retrieved 28 November 2016.
  9. ^ a b The Policing and Crime Act 2009 (Commencement No. 4) Order 2010 (S.I. 2010/507 (C. 37)), article 5
  10. ^ "Policing and Crime Act 2009 (Section 20)". Retrieved 28 November 2016.
  11. ^ "Policing and Crime Act 2009 (Section 15)". Retrieved 28 November 2016.
  12. ^ McMenzie, L. Cook, I.R. and Laing, M. "Criminological policy mobilities and sex work: Understanding the movement of the 'Swedish model' to Northern Ireland". The British Journal of Criminology, 59 (5), 1199–1216.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  13. ^ "Paying for sex becomes a crime in NI as new law comes into effect". BBC News. Northern Ireland. 1 June 2015. Retrieved 2 June 2015.
  14. ^ Justice Minister David Ford is to commission independent research into prostitution in order to inform future policy on the issue. Department of Justice Sept 5 2013
  15. ^ "Prostitution law proposals slammed". Belfast Telegraph. 24 September 2013. Retrieved 28 November 2016.
  16. ^ "Human Trafficking Bill: Lord Morrow criticises police comments". BBC News. 23 September 2013. Retrieved 28 November 2016.
  17. ^ Research into Prostitution in Northern Ireland, Survey Monkey Archived 28 July 2014 at the Wayback Machine
  18. ^ Seán Brady (8 October 2013). "Cardinal Brady's letter to members of the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly concerning the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill". Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference. Retrieved 28 November 2016.
  19. ^ Annie Campbell (20 October 2014). "Human Trafficking Bill is a victory for women". Belfast Telegraph. Retrieved 28 November 2016.
  20. ^ "Sweden's sex laws - do we really want them in Northern Ireland?". Belfast Telegraph. 9 December 2013. Retrieved 28 November 2016.
  21. ^ Department of Justice letter to Committee for Justice. January 14 2014 Archived 19 February 2014 at the Wayback Machine
  22. ^ McDonald, Henry (21 April 2014). "Plans to reform Ulster prostitution laws are unworkable, says justice minister". The Guardian. Retrieved 28 November 2016.
  23. ^ McDonald, Henry (17 October 2014). "Northern Ireland: 98% of sex workers oppose new law criminalising clients". The Guardian.
  24. ^ Gordon, Gareth (21 October 2014). "Trafficking Bill: MLAs vote to make paying for sex a crime". BBC News. Retrieved 28 November 2016.
  25. ^ Laura Lee (21 September 2016). "Laura Lee blog – repeal the Morrow law, now!". Escort Ireland blog. Retrieved 28 November 2016.
  26. ^ Siobhan Fenton (28 September 2016). "Sex worker's legal challenge to anti-prostitution laws granted judicial review". The Independent. Retrieved 28 November 2016.
  27. ^ "Sex workers' rights campaigner dies". BBC News. 9 February 2018. Retrieved 7 April 2018.
  28. ^ Erwin, Alan (8 March 2018). "Laura Lee legal battle over prostitution laws formally withdrawn following her death". Retrieved 7 April 2018.
  29. ^ McClafferty, Enda (10 August 2016). "'No prosecutions' for paying for sex in NI". BBC News. Retrieved 7 April 2018.
  30. ^ "First person prosecuted in Northern Ireland since it became an offence to pay for sexual services". 27 October 2017. Retrieved 7 April 2018.
  31. ^ "First NI prosecution for paying for sex". ITV News. 27 October 2017. Retrieved 27 October 2017.
  32. ^ "Ugly Mugs Ireland & UK, safety for sex workers". Ugly Mugs Ireland. Retrieved 21 December 2018.


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