NI anti-abortion campaigner avoids restraining order

Bernadette Smyth won appeal against being convicted of harassing Dawn Purvis

Bernadette Smyth leaving Belfast Magistrates’ Court last year  after she was ordered to do 100 hours’ community service and pay compensation for harassing the director of a Marie Stopes clinic. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Bernadette Smyth leaving Belfast Magistrates’ Court last year after she was ordered to do 100 hours’ community service and pay compensation for harassing the director of a Marie Stopes clinic. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

A Northern Ireland anti-abortion campaigner cleared of harassing a former Marie Stopes clinic director will not be subjected to any future restraining order, a judge has confirmed.

Bernadette Smyth won her appeal against being convicted of a campaign against Dawn Purvis, but prosecutors still wanted her banned from further approaches.

But Judge Gordon Kerr QC ruled there was no basis for imposing such a restraining condition. It means there is nothing to stop Ms Smyth taking part in lawful protests outside the clinic in Belfast city centre.

On Monday, the 52-year-old mounted a successful challenge to being found guilty of harassing Ms Purvis on two dates in January and February last year. Anti-abortion campaigners have staged demonstrations and handed out leaflets at the centre which offers sexual and reproductive healthcare and early medical abortions within Northen Ireland’s laws since it opened on 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 the former Progressive Unionist MLA told how she put her hand up and asked them to stop harassing her.

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

A month later the pair came into contact again when Ms Purvis’ son called to her office with a female friend. 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, then started to cackle at her.

The former director told an appeal hearing at Belfast County Court she felt menaced and frightened.

But counsel for Mrs Smyth successfully applied to have the case thrown out.

Judge Kerr QC ruled that the evidence did not meet the standard required for a successful prosecution. He quashed the conviction and the accompanying sentence of 100 hours community service and £2,000 compensation to the alleged victim.

Ms Smyth was originally also subjected to a five-year restraining order to stop her interfering with the alleged victim, and from going within 20 metres of the front door of the city centre clinic. The mother-of-four, who continually denied any harassment, was not present in court as the prosecution application for future restraining conditions was dismissed.

In a statement, Genevieve Edwards, director of policy at Marie Stopes UK, said the decision “represents a shocking failure of the system both to uphold women’s rights and protect women in Northern Ireland, who already face considerable barriers accessing legal healthcare”.

She said it will “only serve to validate the behaviour of the tiny minority of people who feel it is acceptable to intimidate and harass women and the staff that provide their care”.