Campaigners have lost a Court of Appeal challenge against the country’s first protest-free “buffer zone” outside an abortion clinic.
Three leading judges dismissed an appeal against an earlier ruling that restrictions imposed by Ealing Council in west London on protests outside a Marie Stopes clinic were “justified”.
The authority was the first to create a buffer zone in April 2018 following demonstrations.
It imposed the public spaces protection order (PSPO) following reports of “intimidation, harassment and distress” for women using the facility in Mattock Lane, Ealing.
Alina Dulgheriu and Andrea Orthova, who regularly attend a vigil run by the Good Counsel Network (GCN), mounted a legal challenge at the Court of Appeal in a bid to overturn the ban on protests directly outside the clinic.
It was argued on their behalf that the ban interferes with their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights to freedom of expression, freedom of religion or belief and freedom of assembly and association.
They also said the council was wrong to use a PSPO because the orders were designed to protect local residents from anti-social behaviour, and clinic users were “one-off or occasional” visitors to the area.
The Master of the Rolls Sir Terence Etherton, Lady Justice King and Lady Justice Nicola Davies unanimously dismissed their appeal on Wednesday, upholding an earlier decision in favour of Ealing by the High Court.
A lawyer representing the women during an appeal hearing in July said many of the allegations made against protesters in evidence gathered by the council during a consultation exercise were “strongly disputed” by the women, GCN and other anti-abortion groups.
Ealing Council argued the buffer zone should remain and said some users of the clinic who had abortions many years ago are still “significantly affected by their encounters with the activists”.
The authority’s QC said the council received a petition signed by more than 3,500 people urging it to take action.
When dismissing the women’s case against the PSPO at the High Court in July 2018, Mr Justice Turner said there was “substantial evidence” from clinic users that their privacy was being “very seriously invaded at a time and place when they were most vulnerable and sensitive to uninvited attention”.
He also said his ruling did not give the “green light” to local authorities to impose PSPOs around all abortion clinics and each case must be decided on its own facts.
Announcing their decision on Wednesday, the appeal judges said that, for a number of years, members of the GCN, a Christian organisation, had congregated immediately outside the Marie Stopes UK West London centre, usually on a daily basis.
In 2015, a pro-choice group began to hold counter-protests, also immediately outside the centre, which “generated an atmosphere of tension”.
After failed attempts to find a compromise between the two groups, Ealing consulted on whether to make a PSPO banning protests in the area.
The appeal judges ruled that “given the established persisting impact upon the quality of life on those visiting the centre as a consequence of the activities of the protest groups, a PSPO was necessary to strike a fair balance between protecting the rights of the service users on the one hand and the protesters on the other”.
They said the High Court judge was entitled to have determined that the creation of a “safe zone”, which the protesters could not enter, and the provision of a designated area some way off – in which limited protest could take place – was a “proportionate response”.
Marie Stopes UK managing director Richard Bentley said after the ruling that it was “a victory for common sense, compassion and women’s right to make decisions about their own bodies free from harassment”.
He added: “Anti-abortion groups who gather outside clinics have a detrimental impact on women, our team members and residents, and, whether their behaviour is subtle or overt, it is a form of discrimination against women and targeted street harassment.
“We believe in the right to assembly, expression and to practise your religion, but this should never be at the expense of a woman’s right to legal healthcare. Context is everything, and a woman’s right to privacy and family life is paramount when walking through our clinic doors.
“Ealing Council carefully reviewed the evidence and considered how to prevent the harm being caused while being mindful of others’ rights and we are thankful that this ruling upholds their decision.
“From the day it was introduced this Public Spaces Protection Order has protected the well-being of everyone coming to our West London centre. But ultimately a PSPO is not an adequate response to what is a national problem, leaving most clinics across the country defenceless.
“It is time for the UK Government to end the postcode lottery of harassment and legislate for Safe Access Zones outside all registered abortion care providers in the UK.”