Judgment in Melbourne Fertility Control Clinic case highlights need for safe access zones

26 August 2015
A Melbourne abortion clinic is looking to Spring Street to create safe access zones after the Supreme Court of Victoria this morning found that while the Melbourne City Council had made mistakes in the way it dealt with the clinic, it would not be compelled to take action to prevent women being harassed and intimidated as they entered the clinic.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s director of advocacy and research, Emily Howie, said while the decision was a partial win and should lead to some improvements on the ground, more work was required to find a broad-based and lasting solution.  

“Whilst in a number of ways this is a partial win for our client, it obviously does not provide an adequate solution. This case focused on one clinic, but what we need now is a clear law to ensure that all Victorian women can access health services without being harassed or intimidated. It’s time for the Government to introduce safe access zones for abortion clinics across Victoria,” said Ms Howie.

The Fertility Control Clinic’s Psychologist, Dr Susie Allanson, said intimidation and harassment was an everyday reality for the clinic’s staff and patients.

“It shouldn’t take a court case to ensure women can safely access our services. It’s clear from this decision that more is needed. We need clear laws that protect a woman’s right to access medical services and I strongly believe that safe access zones are the most sensible way to ensure that,” said Dr Allanson.

A proposed law was introduced last week by cross-bench member Fiona Patten MLC which would create zones around reproductive health services in which people would be prohibited from harassing, intimidating or impeding people entering the clinic, as well as communicating with or recording those people. 

The clinic and its legal team are encouraged that the judge made some important findings today in its favour.

In particular, the judge noted that the Council made a mistake in the way it dealt with this complaint and that asking the clinic to resolve the issue by private means, such as requesting assistance from the Victorian Police, is not appropriate.

In addition the judge found that the behaviour of the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants outside the clinic potentially constituted a nuisance.  However, it’s ultimately disappointing that the judge decided not to compel the Council to act in this particular instance. 

Katie Robertson, associate at Maurice Blackburn, said the clinic had been subject to years of bullying and harassment by anti-abortionists who were deliberately preventing women from safely accessing health services and the decision highlights the need for urgent law reform to ensure women can access all health services safely and free from harassment.

“This decision goes some way in addressing the problem but its impact will be limited unless it’s followed up with practical action from the Victorian Government to stand up for women’s rights,” said Ms Robertson.

In 2013 Tasmania introduced access zones around clinics in which terminations are conducted. Similar zones also exist in the United States and Canada. The ACT government has also released an exposure draft of a bill to create patient privacy zones that support women’s rights to access health services privately and free from intimidating conduct.

“Safe access zones are an easy and sensible solution. They are about respecting the privacy and dignity of women accessing terminations. UN human rights bodies as well as courts in the US and Canada have all found that sensible measures to ensure safe access to women’s health services do not excessively limit the right to freedom of expression and assembly,” said Ms Howie.

The case has been run with the generous assistance of Peter Hanks QC, Kristen Walker QC, Therese McCarthy and Claire Harris, who also provided their services pro-bono.

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