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The Peer who successfully fought to have the purchase of sexual services made illegal has described the handling of a prosecution in Londonderry Magistrates Court as “deeply concerning”.

Lord Morrow of Clogher Valley sponsored the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (NI) Act 2015 while an MLA, which set out amended the law around human trafficking and forced labour. The purchase of sexual services was criminalised through the legislation as a measure to reduce demand for human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation.

A number of convictions for the purchase of sexual services have been recorded in courts around Northern Ireland since the passage of the Act in 2015 with other cases currently making their way through the courts.

In a case which came before at Londonderry Magistrates Court, District Judge Ted Magill ordered a Conditional Discharge for 12 months amid what Lord Morrow called “unfortunate” commentary.

The judge asked the PPS to explain how it is a criminal offence for two adults to engage in paid for consensual sexual activity. "They both engaged in it - he's arrested and spends the night in custody and she's not."

The prosecutor pointed to “sex trafficking” being problematic, even though the defendant faced no charge in that respect.

The judge continued: “He attended with a prostitute, they did engage in sexual activity which he paid for, then, for whatever reason, police arrive. He admits to committing an offence and is arrested. She is not despite the fact they both engaged in some sexual consensual activity. It is hard for me to wrap my head around that because it means if two people decided to go inside for paid for sex, one is guilty and the other isn't."

Lord Morrow said: “The judge's remarks and penalty are deeply concerning and demonstrate a concerning void in understanding of the law. The Judiciary are supposed to be across every single section of legislation relevant to that which comes under their jurisdiction. If not, there is ample access to legal opinion on hand. The judge’s stark lack of knowledge and unfortunate comments here raise serious questions for the judiciary.

“Judges, as with all persons, are fully entitled to their personal opinions but that cannot be permitted to encroach on their responsibilities to uphold the law and apply appropriate penalties when it is broken. The decision to only criminalise the buyer rather than the seller was subject to extensive debate and scrutiny in the Assembly during the passage of the relevant legislation. This is where questions of this nature are rightly determined. It is for judges to apply the law, not to make it. In his comments, District Judge Magill illustrated his ignorance of the basis of the legislative provision in question.

Lord Morrow concluded: “The entire matter was handled poorly and I will be taking this up with the Lord Chief Justice to ensure such ill-informed comments will not be repeated by any member of the judiciary going forward.”