The Department of Justice today (Wednesday 18 September) laid in the Assembly a report of an independent review into the operation of the offence of purchasing sexual services.
The review, which carried out by academics at Queen’s University Belfast, was commissioned by the Department under section 15 of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act 2015 which introduced the offence and required a review of its operation after three years.
The research was undertaken by Professor Graham Ellison, Dr Caoimhe Ní Dhónaill and Erin Early from the School of Law at Queen’s University.
The review reported on the impact of the legislation on the demand for sexual services, the safety and well-being of sex workers, and human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation.
The review reported that, in the period from June 2015 to December 2018, there had been 15 arrests and two convictions for purchasing sex and 31 arrests and two convictions for human trafficking for sexual exploitation.
Higher numbers of sex workers advertising online in the post law period were reported, rising from 3,351 to 3,973: an increase of 622. An increase in demand for sexual services was also reported by sex workers in the period following the introduction of the legislation. However, on-street prostitution has declined in comparison to previous research, reducing from an estimate of 20 active on-street sex workers operating in Northern Ireland in 2014 to currently less than ten.
The research reported that it is not possible to say that the change in the law is responsible for any increase in crime against sex workers, but a heightened fear of crime has contributed to a climate whereby sex workers feel further marginalised and stigmatised.
The review concluded that the legislation has had minimal effect on the demand for sexual services; and due to the absence of any evidence that demand had decreased, it was unable to determine how the offence could have impacted on human trafficking.
Speaking about the findings, Professor Ellison, from the School of Law at Queen’s University said: “This law has not reduced the supply of prostitution in Northern Ireland which is currently higher than it was before the legislation came into effect. Nor has it reduced the demand for prostitution services with a majority of clients stating that purchasing sex is now as easy as it was before the law. What it has done is increase levels of abuse and anti-social behaviour directed towards sex workers who are the group least well placed to do anything about it.”
The report and an assessment of its findings are available here: https://www.justice-ni.gov.uk/publications/assessment-impact-criminalisation-purchasing-sexual-services
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