Anti-abortion campaigner wins harassment conviction appeal

Bernadette Smyth’s conviction for pestering former Marie Stopes clinic head overturned

Bernadette Smyth leaving Belfast Magistrates’ Court after she was ordered to do 100 hours’ community service and pay £2,000 compensation after being convicted of harassing Dawn Purvis last year. She has been successful in an appeal against that conviction. File photgraph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Bernadette Smyth leaving Belfast Magistrates’ Court after she was ordered to do 100 hours’ community service and pay £2,000 compensation after being convicted of harassing Dawn Purvis last year. She has been successful in an appeal against that conviction. File photgraph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

A high-profile anti-abortion campaigner on Monday won her appeal against being convicted of harassing a former Marie Stopes clinic director.

The case against Precious Life founder Bernadette Smyth was thrown out after a judge ruled there was insufficient evidence that she pursued a campaign against Dawn Purvis.

But despite the guilty verdict being quashed prosecutors are still to seek a restraining order to stop her going near the former Progressive Unionist Party MLA.

Ms Smyth (52) continually denied having harassed Ms Purvis on two dates in January and February last year.

Following her successful appeal at Belfast County Court she said: “I’m just relieved that my family and myself can hold our heads up now that my name has been cleared.”

Protests

Anti-abortion campaigners have staged protests and handed out leaflets at the Marie Stopes centre which offers sexual and reproductive healthcare and early medical abortions within Northern Ireland’s laws since it opened on Belfast’s Great Victoria Street in October 2012.

Ms Purvis, who has now stepped down as clinic director, said she was left frightened for her safety following the two alleged incidents.

In the first exchange with demonstrators she told of how she put her hand up and asked them to stop harassing her.

At that stage Ms Smyth was said to have replied: “You ain’t seen harassment yet, darling.”

A month later the pair came into contact again when Ms Purvis’s son called to her office with a girl. She claimed that as she walked them back out another of the protestors followed the girl up the street.

According to her account Ms Smyth, of Suffolk Street in Ballymena, Co Antrim, then started to cackle at her.

Giving evidence on Monday the former director claimed: “It was very menacing – it was nearly like there’s nothing you can do to prevent us doing whatever we’re doing in the street.”

Contested hearing

Ms Smyth was originally convicted following a contested hearing at Belfast Magistrates’ Court last November.

She was ordered to complete 100 hours’ community service and told to pay Ms Purvis £2,000 in compensation.

A five-year restraining order was also imposed to stop the defendant pestering or interfering with the alleged victim, and from going within 20 yards of the front door of the city centre clinic. But Ms Smyth continually denied any harassment, and mounted an appeal against the guilty verdict.

Her barrister, Mark Mulholland QC, challenged Ms Purvis’s assertion that the two incidents left her in fear.

During cross-examination he cited the alleged victim’s former role within the Progressive Unionist Party, noting its political alignment to the Ulster Volunteer Force.

Questioning her claims to have been intimidated by his client, he put it to her: “Are you not a person with a bit more fortitude than that?”

But Ms Purvis insisted: “I was frightened.”

The court heard how she waited a day before reporting one of the incidents to police.

“I thought I could cope with it, but I couldn’t. I thought this was another incident I could let go, but I couldn’t,” she said.

“I was fearful, and all of the protesters were causing me a lot of angst.”

However, at the end of the prosecution case Mr Mulholland applied to have the case against his client thrown out.

Judge Gordon Kerr backed his submission and dismissed the charges after ruling that the evidence did not meet the standard required for a successful prosecution.

Further prosecution request

He will now consider a further prosecution request to maintain the restraining order despite the conviction being overturned.

Outside court Ms Smyth, who was accompanied by family and supporters, said: “I just feel that justice has been done.

“I thank God for my vindication and for helping my family and me through this horrible ordeal.

“Precious Life and I will continue with the work we have been doing over the last 18 years, which is to advocate for unborn children.”

Asked if she had any message for Ms Purvis, she replied: “None. I have closed that chapter and I don’t need to reopen it.”