The High Court today handed down judgment in a ground breaking judicial review brought by three women formerly involved in prostitution, challenging the Government’s Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) Regulations. They argued successfully that the disclosure of their convictions for soliciting is disproportionate and a breach of the right to respect for private life.
The women, who had all been groomed into prostitution as teenagers presented evidence of the far-reaching impact of prostitution-specific records on all aspects of their lives. The DBS scheme requires mandatory disclosure of ‘spent’ criminal records when applying for jobs or volunteer activity in prescribed areas, primarily involving contact with the vulnerable. Following previous legal challenges, there is a filtering mechanism but it only applies to single convictions. As the women had shown in evidence, soliciting by its nature almost invariably results in multiple convictions. Their evidence showed that the disclosure of such records was deeply stigmatising, impacted on the ability of women to exit from prostitution and adversely impacted on employment opportunities, volunteering, education and training opportunities.
The Judges provided a strong judgement recognising the disproportionate nature of disclosure and the significant violation of their right to private life. It should result in the women being able to have their DBS records filtered to remove the soliciting offences – though the mechanism for this is not yet clear.
Fiona Broadfoot, one of the claimants, who waived her anonymity in this case and has been fighting this battle for over 20 years said, “Finally, I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders – it’s a vindication. I have carried these convictions around – 8 pages of them – all my life and it’s a disgrace. Not one of those men who bought and used and abused me – even the ones who knew fine well I was a child when first put on the streets – has ever had to face the consequences of his actions. It has been a long fight but worth it.”
Harriet Wistrich the Lawyer for the women said, “This is an important judgment – although there were only three claimants in this case, the judgment will benefit all women in these circumstances and has the potential to bring about real change for a sex trade survivors who should never have been criminalised in the first place. Unfortunately, the court were not persuaded by our argument that the practice discriminates against women or is in breach of duties with regard to trafficked women. We will be seeking permission to appeal in relation to those broader points. It is not easy for women with a history of prostitution to come forward and advocate for themselves and others – so much stigma attends them – so the courage and determination of these women is to be applauded.”
Karen Ingala Smith (CEO for nia a women’s charity supporting the women) said, “We feel strongly that these women should never have been convicted in the first place prostitution is symptomatic of women’s continued inequality and discrimination and a form of violence against women. These women were exploited and coerced and yet it is their lives, not those of their buyers and pimps, that were blighted with convictions. They should not have had to take up this fight, but they did and it is to the benefit of all those exploited in prostitution”.
The BBC has reported on this with the headline “Former sex worker ‘vindicated’ after High Court win”:
But the front page of the BBC UK news page yesterday said “Ex-prostitute ‘vindicated’ in court win”:
Fiona Broadfoot, and others, have protested this on twitter:
It is very easy to complain to the BBC, you can do so online here (and they are a publically funded company, so they have to reply):
This is the complaint I left, feel free to copy or use as a template:
“The use of the term ‘sex work’ in a piece relating to the commercial sexual exploitation of women and girls. Fiona Broadfoot was 15 when she was first commercially sexually exploited, 15 is below the age of consent so this was statutory rape, rape in not ‘work’. Broadfoot has said clearly on twitter that she was never a ‘sex worker’. ‘Sex work’ is a partisan term and should be used with caution, and should never be used to describe the commercial sexual exploitation of children.”
Buzzfeed has also reported on this, and managed to do so without calling a commercially raped child a ‘worker’, so a website I associate primarily with listicles has done better than the British Broadcasting Corporation:
“I met a pimp aged 15, and two weeks later I was thrown into the violent and abusive world of prostitution,” Broadfoot, 48, from Bradford, West Yorkshire, told BuzzFeed News. “Rape became an occupational hazard but I was arrested, charged, and criminalised for loitering for the purposes of being a common prostitute.
“After more than 20 years out of prostitution, I am still having to explain my criminal record to any prospective employer. It feels like explaining my history of abuse.”
She told BuzzFeed News that she sobbed when she heard that her legal challenge had been successful after the judge’s decision was handed down today.
“Finally, I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders – it’s a vindication,” she said. “I have carried these convictions around – eight pages of them – all my life and it’s a disgrace. Not one of those men who bought and used and abused me – even the ones who knew fine well I was a child when first put on the streets – has ever had to face the consequences of his actions. It has been a long fight but worth it.”
She added: “I’m absolutely delighted about the decision. A huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I can now live my life with dignity and not in the shadow and stigma of abuse.”
Broadfoot said she was also pleased to have won the case “for the hundreds of other women who have been convicted” under similar circumstances.
“It’s about time that the powers that be take a look at the legislation surrounding the sex trade,” she said, “and put the criminal focus right where it belongs: on the sex buyers and pimps and traffickers.”
The evidence presented by the women showed that the disclosure of their records was deeply stigmatising, impacted their ability to exit prostitution, and had adversely affected employment, volunteering, education and training opportunities.
In August, Broadfoot told BuzzFeed News: “I couldn’t get on a university degree, a social work degree, I couldn’t get into child development at college. They said I could get on to the course but I wouldn’t be able to find a placement because of my criminal record.
“I’ve been discriminated against in my workplace – I wouldn’t even apply for some jobs. I wanted to be on the PTA at my son’s school and I had to tell the headteacher. It was really embarrassing.”
Each time she has to disclose her criminal record it’s “humiliating”, she said. “I feel so exposed. They say it’s about safeguarding – safeguarding who? After all the hell I’ve been through.
“When I was pregnant with my beautiful son I was watching over my shoulder. I was petrified they’d take him off me. I’ve had ‘prostitute’ daubed on my house. It’s horrible being treated like that.
“What that does to me is make me feel like I deserved that abuse – it messes with your head in terms of your recovery.”