Welcome for first NI sex buyer conviction

The law to criminalise sex buyers was introduced with support from the four largest parties in Stormont in 2015
The law to criminalise sex buyers was introduced with support from the four largest parties in Stormont in 2015

A ‘survivor’ of prostitution has welcomed the first conviction in Northern Ireland of a person for trying to buy sex.

In the first case of its kind brought under legislation introduced in 2015, a woman was approached, shown cash and shown gestures indicating a sexual act as she worked at a Dungannon petrol station prior to the premises opening for the day.

Before East Tyrone Magistrates’ Court was James Maloney from Drumarg Villas, Armagh, who contested the charge, but who remained silent during police interviews and refused to give evidence in court.

The victim, who is Lithuanian and speaks little English, was cleaning around the petrol pumps at 6.30am on August 28, 2016, when a black car pulled up.

CCTV footage showed the driver showing the victim a roll of cash before pointing to his groin and mouth while making gestures with his hand.

The victim told the court she was frightened, adding: “There was no-one about at that time of the morning.”

A defence barrister cast doubt on the identification of Maloney and his number plate, but police said the only possible registered plate belonged to her client.

Judge John Meehan concluded: “I have no lurking doubt whatsoever in a finding of guilt. The defendant signalled money would be available should the victim accept and carry out sexual activity on him. He put the lady through a highly stressful process.”

The case is adjourned until next month for sentencing.

Mia De Faoite, who describes herself as a “survivor of prostitution” and was a keen supporter of the new law, said it was “a long-awaited and welcome conviction”. She added: “It proves that when the law is implemented and followed through, it works. It sends a clear message out to those who continue to break the law, that their behaviour is not only unacceptable, it is illegal and there are consequences.”

Rachel Moran, who also exited the sex trade and supported the law, hopes to see it used more.

“Since the court recognises that the mere suggestion of renting a woman’s body for sex puts her in a highly stressful situation, I do hope to see many more arrests of men who go far beyond suggesting it,” she said.

Noelle Collins of Women’s Aid, said she hopes the law will “change the mind-set, for society to say that the buying of sex is a form of exploitation”.

She added: “Most of the young women selling sex in Northern Ireland at the minute are from other countries and are certainly being led by pimps, but it is organised crime.”

DUP peer Lord Morrow, who steered the legislation through the Assembly, said he had been “berated” by the Department of Justice that the law “would not work” and it would be “impossible to secure convictions”.

He added: “This conviction proves conclusively the effectiveness of this legislation and the need for it.”

But academic Dr Jay Levy, who researches the criminalisation of sex buyers, said that the measure “exacerbates difficulties and dangers for sex workers, especially for the most marginalised and vulnerable”.

The law does not decrease the size of the sex trade, he said, and in Northern Ireland, it does not “protect” women because previous criminal legislation against them is still being used.

Speaking of the Dungannon conviction, he added: “Sexual harassment and stalking are illegal, and criminalising the purchase of sex is not required to prosecute in such instances.”

But chief commissioner at the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, Les Allamby, commended the new law.

“Sexual exploitation is an unacceptable reality in Northern Ireland,” he said. “The commission welcomes the effective enforcement of the current law to protect the rights of women and girls who are at risk of abuse. This approach is in line with international human rights standards.

“It is important government agencies including the police, social services and healthcare providers work together to combat exploitation and provide support for victims. Moreover we need to ensure specialised accessible support for victims is available and adequately funded.”

Amnesty International, then-justice minister David Ford and Department of Justice officials all opposed the bill during its passage through the Assembly, however none of them offered any comment on the conviction.