Nicola Sturgeon asked to write to Lord Advocate for legal advice on abortion buffer zones as bylaw implementation 'not possible'
A councillor in Aberdeen has called on the First Minister to write to the Lord Advocate on how to implement abortion buffer zones at local authority level as councils raise issues with bylaws.
The councillor’s call is ahead of a ‘mini-summit’ on abortion care on Monday, involving women’s health minister Maree Todd and Nicola Sturgeon, which will discuss the potential use of bylaws to implement buffer zones. Due to the high presence of anti-abortion protests in these areas, Aberdeen City Council has been invited to attend along with Glasgow and Edinburgh city councils.
The meeting follows a summit on abortion care in June which saw the government commit to considering to trial the zones via the local authority regulations.
However, a recent Aberdeen City Council report found the implementation of zones via bylaws brought about a raft of financial and legal problems.
The report raises that the council does not have the financial means to advertise the bylaws or defend a judicial review and there may be existing legislation to implement the zones.
The general consensus during a council meeting, according to Ms Tissera, was that bylaws cannot be implemented in the local authority.
Ms Tissera had to withdraw her motion on implementing buffer zones via bylaws in the area as a result and is now calling for "legal transparency and advice” from the Lord Advocate of Scotland.
In submissions to the UK Supreme Court – currently considering buffer zone legislation in Northern Ireland - the Lord Advocate of Scotland previously argued that interfering with rights relating to freedom of expression may be "justified", in order to protect personal autonomy of the rights of pregnant women.
She cited Article 8 of the ECHR, which guarantees a right to respect for private and family life.
Speaking to Scotland on Sunday, Ms Tissera said: "We have found bylaws are not the correct legal remedy and COSLA is giving the same advice. My opinion is we need to write to ask the First Minister to write to the Lord Advocate regarding this instead of making local authority go round in circles and wasting council money and council officers’ time.
"The Scottish Government is not being transparent with us about the legal advice they are getting but they want to work with us on this issue.
"If the First Minister can go to the Lord Advocate for constitutional issues, why can’t she do the same for women's issues?
"The matter needs to be progressed urgently using every approach available to us through the powers of the Scottish Parliament, as Maree Todd said, so to do that I want to seek this legal advice.
“Local authorities cannot afford to spend money on things which will make us go in circles and we are already facing cuts.”
The Aberdeen report states police in recent years have found there have been “various protests or rallies” around both sides of the abortion and anti-abortion debate, however, these have passed off as “peaceful events posing no significant issue”.
Ms Tissera said the issue with the police using anti-social behaviour and dispersal orders in this instance is they cannot arrest or move groups “appearing to participate in peaceful vigils and holding candles”.
Holly Bruce, Glasgow Green councillor, said she would back Ms Tissera’s call if the summit on Monday does not provide “strong actions” as the councillor said she would like to see a “more proportionate” response from Police Scotland to anti-abortion protests outside clinics.
"I do understand there are legal and financial concerns but Monday’s summit will hopefully iron out some of those issues,” Ms Bruce said: "I do think there are some current powers Police Scotland have like anti-social behaviour laws and dispersal powers so I feel they should be using them more or taking a more proportionate response to that.”
Glasgow City Council has said it will continue to work with partners to overcome any legal barriers that exist.
Cammy Day, leader of The City of Edinburgh Council, said it continues to discuss this issue with the Scottish Government and other local authorities with a view to agreeing how best these zones can be introduced.
Gillian Mackay MSP has proposed a bill which would introduce national legislation for safe access zones around healthcare settings that provide abortion services.
The Supreme Court is considering whether the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Northern Ireland) Bill is outside the legislative competence of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The Scottish Government is currently waiting on the outcome of this ruling – expected in Autumn – before they implement their own safe access zone measures.
Aberdeen has agreed to await the outcome of the Supreme Court decision on this in order make an informed position on implementing bye-laws.
There was recent outrage after The Scotsman revealed the Scottish Government is spending £10,000 to start a ‘mediation process’ with protestors and those affected by them.
Alice Murray, who went through anti abortion harassment and is from the campaign group Back Off Scotland said: "As someone who has been through clinic harassment, I would be really interested to know who would want to sign up to this, who would want to speak to them as I know I wouldn’t. It feels like putting the onus onto the victims which I really disagree with."
Dr Pam Lowe, who carried out 5-year research on anti-abortion protests across the UK, said the mediation appears to “fundamentally misunderstand” the motivations of anti-abortion activists and “there is no middle ground”.
The government has commissioned a 24-month research project to gather “more robust and objective evidence” on the impact of the protests/vigils on patients and others.
However, Ms Bruce said she did not know “how appropriate” that research is given the “substantial” consultation evidence recently compiled for Ms Mackay’s bill and the case studies and research compiled by campaigners and researchers on the protests’ impact. Ms Tissera fears this research will delay the implementation of the zones “even more”.
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