In a conjoined hearing tomorrow (17 October) at the High Court in London, two Christian groups will challenge the validity of a ‘buffer zone’ surrounding an abortion clinic in Bournemouth, which criminalise prayer and reading from the Bible in public and private.
Christian Concern and Mrs Livia Tossici-Bolt, a former clinical scientist, who leads 40 Days for life Bournemouth, have pursued a statutory challenge and judicial review of Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council’s decision to force through a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) in October 2022, following what lawyers have described as an ‘unlawful’ public consultation.
The 150m exclusion zone was brought in under section 67 of the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, and surrounds the British Pregnancy Advisory Group’s (BPAS) clinic in Ophir Road, Bournemouth.
In January 2023, following an amendment to the Public Order Bill, ‘buffer zones’ around abortion clinics were brought in nationally.
Politicians and campaigners have described them as deeply draconian measures that criminalise free speech and prevent vulnerable women from access to alternatives to abortion, which the ministry of 40 Days for Life provides.
Under the measures, vigils, offering support and praying in the zone could result in a fine and six months in prison.
Exclusion zone covers public spaces and private homes
The buffer zone in Bournemouth is unique in that the way it has been drawn up by the local authority means that the exclusion zone covers both public spaces and private homes.
Lawyers will argue that if someone were to be heard and seen from the street praying against abortion in their home from the street, this could result in a prison sentence.
Supported by the Christian Legal Centre, on Tuesday 17 October at the Royal Courts of Justice, Christian Concern will challenge the decision to introduce the legislation on the grounds that the council did not have the power under the 2014 Act to make a PSPO which restricts and criminalises otherwise lawful activities conducted in private places.
Lawyers will say that the council did also not have the power under the 2014 Act to allow the police to move members of the public from the zone with the threat of being fined and arrested. They will say this is ‘incompatible’ with the powers given by parliament to the police and is an ‘abuse’ of the Act.
Furthermore, lawyers will say that the PSPO was unlawfully made in the absence of any consultation with the Chief Constable of the Dorset police, as is required, and that the PSPO was made without authority since it was not passed by Council Resolution.
PSPOs were introduced in 2014 with the intent: “to help ensure that the law-abiding majority can use and enjoy public spaces, safe from antisocial behaviour.” The guidance emphasises that PSPOs must be narrowly drafted: “given that these orders can restrict what people can do and how they behave in public spaces it is important that the restrictions imposed are focussed on specific behaviours and are proportionate to the detrimental effect that the behaviour is causing or can cause…”.
The legislation has usually been reserved for tackling anti-social behaviour such as dog fouling and drink and drug abuse in local communities.
However, the legislation has also been politically weaponised by authorities to criminalise ‘any act of disapproval’ of abortion outside of clinics.
The legislation has especially been used to prohibit the ministry of 40 Days for Life, not just in Bournemouth but across the UK. The PSPO prevents any discussion of abortion or offers of help within the designated exclusion 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.
The PSPO has also given 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 ordered volunteers to move on accusing them of “intimidation, harassment or distress” simply because they were praying.
Pursuing a statutory challenge in the High Court this week, Livia is bringing this challenge on the basis that the council did not have the power to make the PSPO because:
The council wrongly sought to prohibit peaceful and lawful behaviour which cannot properly be characterised as “anti-social” for the purpose of section 59 of the 2014 Act.
They will argue that the restrictions are disproportionate, an interference with the group’s ECHR rights, and interference with the rights of women who will be denied support as a result of the restrictions.
Christian Concern and Miss Tossici-Bolt seek a declaration from the court that the PSPO, or parts of it, is unlawful and will ask the judge for an order quashing those parts of the PSPO.
Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, said: “The measures brought in by Bournemouth Council are disturbing in that they prevent women from being given access to alternatives to abortion.
“We see women choosing life for their children because of the presence of groups like 40 Days for Life outside clinics.
“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 the viewpoint that shows the women a pathway of life and hope.
“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 turn back the introduction of oppressive buffer zones across the UK.”
Ahead of the hearing, Livia 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 having been brought to the BPAS facility under coercion, a reality that has reached worrying levels, as exposed by a recent BBC poll 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.”
Find out more about Bournemouth ‘buffer zone’