Legal action has been launched against Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council over a ‘buffer zone’ that censors free speech and makes prayer illegal outside an abortion clinic.
Supported by the Christian Legal Centre, Livia Tossici-Bolt, a former clinical scientist, who leads 40 Days for Life Bournemouth, will pursue a statutory review of the council’s decision to force through a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) in October 2022 following a ‘questionable’ public consultation.
PSPOs are usually reserved for tackling anti-social behaviour such as drug and alcohol abuse and dangerous dogs. However, in this case, the PSPO is a 150m zone surrounding the British Pregnancy Advisory Group’s (BPAS) clinic in Ophir Road, Bournemouth.
40 Days for Life is an international grass roots organisation dedicated to ending abortion. The Bournemouth group includes a small number of mostly female volunteers who regularly offer help and information on alternatives to abortion to women outside the clinic.
The PSPO, known as a ‘buffer zone’, has now essentially criminalised the group’s ministry by prohibiting any discussion of abortion or offers of help within the area. This includes prayer, reading from the Bible, making the sign of the cross, counselling and providing information and support available to women in crisis pregnancies. This is despite a number of lives being saved as a direct result of their vigils.
Sprinkling ‘holy water’ in the zone, could lead to a volunteer facing six months in prison.
Disturbingly, the PSPO also gives power to ‘designated’ members of the public to essentially spy on the zone and facilitate the removal of anyone perceived to be breaking the PSPO order.
Since the launch of the buffer zone, there have been reports of ‘prayer patrol officers’ from the council monitoring the zone who have accused the volunteers of “intimidation, harassment or distress” simply because they were praying and ordered them to move on.
A resident who lives within the buffer zone in Bournemouth, but is not party to legal proceedings, has said the council’s legislation makes it illegal for them to even talk about abortion on their property.
The 40 Days for Life campaigns last for 40 consecutive days and are held bi-annually, once in the spring and once in the autumn. Volunteers are present during these times in groups of two to four at a time.
During the opening times of the clinic, the volunteers hold no posters, banners or placards apart from the sign: “Pregnant? Need Help? 020 7724 6658” and never use megaphones. Prayers, which are a central part of the 40 Days for Life activities are said quietly. Leaflets are offered to people entering the clinic identifying help, including material help, which is available to these women and their families should they request or need it.
In response to the group’s presence, however, earlier in 2022 a pro-abortion group, known as ‘Sister Support’ (the SS group) began intimidating the 40 Days for Life volunteers and engineering ‘smear campaigns’ in the local media.
This led to members of the public and women and their partners attending the clinic becoming increasingly aggressive and abusive to the volunteers as they peacefully pray.
A consultation was then launched by the council between July and August 2022 and it would appear this specifically targeted the activities of Mrs Tossici-Bolt and her volunteers.
Lawyers will submit that whilst the council actively engaged with BPAS during the consultation, there was no consultation with any pro-life group, including 40 Days for Life.
The buffer zone was also implemented despite Dorset Police’s Police and Crime Commissioner, David Sidwick, expressing concern on the practical aspects of enforcing the law within the zone. Responding to the consultation, he backed an option that would have reserved a space outside of the clinic for pro-life volunteers and stated that: “There is a need to ensure that people’s legal right to peaceful protest is taken into account.”
Now, backed by the Christian Legal Centre, Mrs Tossici-Bolt will challenge the validity of the PSPO with lawyers arguing that the council has exceeded its powers.
They will say that the council did not have the power to make the PSPO because officials wrongly sought to prohibit peaceful and lawful behaviour which cannot properly be characterised as “anti-social”, and for which there is no evidence.
Furthermore, lawyers will argue that the PSPO is disproportionate and interferes with Mrs Tossici-Bolt’s human rights under Article 9, 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
The High Court will be asked to declare the PSPO unlawful, unjustified and an interference with Mrs Tossici-Bolt and other pro-lifers’ rights.
The case follows a developing trend of local authorities using the PSPO legislation to shut down free speech, especially on the issue of abortion. Earlier this month, similar legal action was launched over the implementation of a buffer zone in Birmingham.
The issue has come to a head after in October MPs voted for an amendment to the Public Order Bill which will impose buffer zones around all abortion clinics in England and Wales.
A statement from the government has since brought into question whether the amendment is ‘compatible with the ECHR’ and said there will be more scrutiny as the bill moves through parliament.
Earlier this month on the BBC, Minister for Women, Maria Caulfield, has stated that she believes six months in prison for comforting a woman outside of an abortion clinic is a ‘disproportionate response.’
Buffer zones have also been hotly debated as part of the Public Order Bill in the House of Lords. The Bishop of St Albans said: “I have serious concerns about this clause as it stands. The term ‘interferes with’ is so broadly defined that it includes seeking to influence, merely expressing an opinion, or attempting ‘to inform about abortion services’. I cannot believe that this is proportionate given the existing powers possessed by the police and local authorities.”
Freedom to pray
Launching the legal claim, Mrs Tossici-Bolt said: “Everyone must have the freedom to pray quietly in a public place. Everyone must have the freedom to give and to receive information. I, and my group of volunteers, would never dream of doing something that causes intimidation and harassment and I find extremely concerning that unfounded accusations of such reprehensible behaviour have been used for ideological gains to discredit genuine humanitarian endeavours. We have already been intimidated out of exercising our freedom of thought and of expression, but have continued to defend these fundamental rights with a peaceful conduct.
“The bedrock of our vigils is prayer. This aspect may be irrelevant to a secular society, but we believe we are carrying out the will of God in serving the needs of people in the most desperate situations, with love and compassion. Interestingly, the explicit targeting of prayer is in itself a recognition of its power to transform any situation.
“Vigils are there to serve women and couples in a pregnancy crisis, with information that opens new possibilities to them, therefore enabling them to make a true choice when, often, they believed they had none. We also believe our presence on the ground is vital to women who might havi
ng been brought to the BPAS facility under coercion, a reality that has reached worrying levels, as exposed by a recent BBC pool that has revealed that 15% of women, across the whole range of reproductive age, have felt coerced to abort. Furthermore, we provide information on post-abortion counselling available to anyone who may need healing from the trauma of abortion, another reality too often ignored and even denied.
“It has been claimed that women attending abortion facilities have made up their mind and do not need any further assistance. Yet, my experience on the ground has taught me that this generic assumption is far from being true and, in fact, grossly ignores those women whose hearts and minds are in turmoil and are looking for an alternative to abortion till the last moment.
“By imposing this PSPO, the BCP council is preventing women coerced into abortion from being reached and helped, and denying women and couples in difficult circumstances the possibility of receiving independent information and supportive alternatives to abortion.
“We believe what the council has done is unlawful, discriminatory and unethical and we are determined to fight for justice.”
Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, said: “The effect of the PSPO is to criminalise 40 Days’ activities in Bournemouth and to create an area where no discussion of abortion or even prayer relating to abortion, is permitted.
“There is no evidence whatsoever to show that anyone is being harassed outside abortion clinics. The truth is quite the opposite. It is the abortion supporters who intimidate and harass and do not permit any dissenting viewpoint.
“Following the introduction of Pills by Post at home abortions, the offer of help to women outside abortion clinics is one of the few lifelines left to those who feel helpless and coerced into going through with an abortion.
“Buffer zones are an oppressive part of the current culture which force consent and silence dissent. The saddest thing of all is that we are actually talking about human lives.
“We stand with 40 Days for Life as they seek justice in this case. We call on MPs and the government to halt the introduction of repressive and draconian buffer zones across the UK.”
Find out more about Bournemouth ‘buffer zone’