UPDATE June 2015: This case will be heard this week on Wednesday 3rd June 2015 - more details to come.
The Melbourne City Council is facing legal action over its failure to ensure safe access to medical services at an East Melbourne health clinic.
The Fertility Control Clinic has been beset for decades by members of the anti-abortion group, Helpers of God’s Precious Infants, who harass and intimidate patients and staff, and regularly try to stop people accessing the clinic.
In 2001, an anti-abortion extremist shot dead Stephen Rogers, a security guard who worked at the clinic.
Law firm Maurice Blackburn and the Human Rights Law Centre will today commence Supreme Court proceedings on behalf of the Fertility Control Clinic seeking to compel the council to enforce existing laws that would protect the clinic’s patients and staff from harassment.
Susie Allanson, a psychologist at the clinic, said the decision to take the council to court was not made lightly, but was the only option left given the council’s inaction.
“It’s distressing for patients to be confronted by such physical and psychological harassment to access our health services. Our staff members have also had to deal with some aggressive behaviour from this group, but the council seems deaf to our concerns,” said Dr Allanson.
The head of Maurice Blackburn’s social justice practice, Elizabeth O’Shea, said existing laws enable the council to act on the anti-abortion group, but the council was simply failing to enforce the law.
“It’s disappointing that the council continues to turn a blind eye to this kind of ongoing harassment, despite the fact we have brought it to their attention on numerous occasions. Our client shouldn’t have to launch legal proceedings just to get the council to do its job and make sure patients and staff can safely access medical services at the clinic,” said Ms O’Shea.
Charlotte (not her real name), who attended the clinic in 2013, said she was intimidated and distressed after being rushed by a group of strangers telling her she was a murderer, that she was going to hell and that she was a whore.
“These people are entitled to their opinions, but they shouldn’t be allowed to stand right out the front and treat people the way they do. They could stand on the other side of the road or at least provide a larger area of space. It’s just common decency,” said Charlotte.
Click here to read Charlotte’s full statement and comments from other patients.
The Human Rights Law Centre’s director of advocacy, Rachel Ball, said that safe access to reproductive healthcare is an important women’s rights issue.
“No one is suggesting that people should be prevented from expressing their opinions. We’d simply like to see an arrangement in which women can safely access health services without being harassed and intimidated,” said Ms Ball.
Ms Ball said sensible measures to ensure safe access to health services would not excessively limit the right to freedom of expression and assembly.
The legal case will argue that the self-described “sidewalk counsellors” meet the definition of nuisance as outlined in Victoria’s Public Health and Wellbeing Act.
Under the act, the council has a duty to address issues of nuisance within its borders. The Supreme Court action to be launched today seeks an order requiring the council to perform its duty under the act and take action against the anti-abortion group.
The HRLC's response to subsequent claims from the Lord Mayor, Robert Doyle, that the Melbourne City Council does not have powers to respond to the nuisance is available here.