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UK Police drop charity volunteer’s unjustified bail conditions, but ordeal continues as matter referred to prosecutors to consider charges

  • Isabel Vaughan-Spruce’s bail conditions following her second arrest for silently praying outside of an abortion facility have been dropped. 
  • Vaughan-Spruce could still be criminally charged for violating Birmingham’s censorship zone. 

Birmingham (9 June 2023) West Midlands Police has conceded that charity volunteer, Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, is now “permitted within the area” surrounding an abortion facility. She was subject to bail conditions for three months that prevented her from attending the censorship zone outside an abortion facility in Birmingham.

After Vaughan-Spruce’s second arrest for silent prayer in March, West Midlands Police imposed bail conditions that banned her from attending public spaces even beyond the censorship zone. Vaughan-Spruce, whose legal defense is being supported by ADF UK, argued that a ban going beyond what some call a “buffer zone” was “unnecessary”, “disproportionate”, and “effected for an improper purpose”, leading to West Midlands Police revoking the initial conditions and limiting the ban to the censorship zone.  

Unsatisfied with the police’s handling of the matter, Vaughan-Spruce made further representations. She argued that the Crown Prosecution Service’s (CPS) previous assessment, followed by her not-guilty verdict in February, meant that her second arrest and bail conditions were “disingenuous”, “unlawful” and used for the improper purpose of effectively imposing a criminal sentence without reference to the prosecution and the courts.  

With support from ADF UK, Vaughan-Spruce argued that silent prayer is protected under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects freedom of thought as an absolute right, and the local censorship zone must be interpreted accordingly.  

This week, West Midlands Police conceded that the PSPO does not ban Vaughan-Spruce from being present within the zone, though warned her that the file has been referred to the CPS and she may still be charged. 

The arrest, which was attended by six police officers, came only weeks after the charity volunteer was found “not guilty” by Birmingham Magistrates’ Court. She had been criminally charged on the basis that her silent, imperceptible prayers amounted to “intimidation”. The now-viral videos of Vaughan-Spruce’s first and second arrests ignited an international outcry. 

Following West Midlands Police’s concession and revoking of the bail conditions, Vaughan-Spruce said, “While I am grateful my bail conditions have been lifted, and the police have acknowledged that peaceful presence is not in and of itself a crime, I am concerned that the police were able to restrict my right to peacefully and silently pray for three months and so soon after I was acquitted for the same conduct. I received no update from the authorities as to the progress of the investigation, and I still don’t know how my actions could be considered in any way intimidating. To have prosecution hanging over my head for a seemingly indeterminate period for the simple act of praying, thinking towards God, is deeply unsettling and unjust.”  

ADF UK is a legal organisation working to promote fundamental freedoms which backed charity volunteer Vaughan-Spruce, campaigned against censorship zones, and supported Vaughan-Spruce’s court victory in February.  

Jeremiah Igunnubole, legal counsel for ADF UK, on Vaughan-Spruce’s case, stated, “Isabel has endured months of her rights being improperly restricted by West Midlands Police without any reference to the prosecution or the courts. Her experience provides a clear example of the dangers of recent public order reforms, which have handed broad powers to the police to restrict fundamental rights with no accountability or training and come with no specific legal protections for freedom of speech and thought. Police should not have the power to restrict harmless conduct, much less punish the peaceful exercise of fundamental rights.”  

Igunnubole continued, saying “Censorship zones have no place in a free and democratic society, which is in part defined by the extent to which it protects the peaceful exchange of views and ideas. Criminalising speech is concerning enough, criminalising thought is even more so. Permitting these rights, peacefully exercised, to be restricted at the discretion of police officers is a dangerous new turn for the UK, which has a longstanding legal tradition of protecting civil liberties. Yet recent public order reforms have handed the state machinery still more power to restrict and punish viewpoints deemed to be a threat to prevailing social orthodoxies, instead of introducing measures that strengthen free speech and thought to ensure no one is subject to the same treatment endured by Isabel.” 

Arrested for Silent Prayer 

Vaughan-Spruce was first arrested in December 2022. While standing still and silently, police approached her, and asked what she was doing. After responding that she was not protesting, but “might be” praying inside her mind, police then searched, arrested, interrogated, and charged her on four counts for breaking the so-called “buffer zone” around a Birmingham abortion facility. 

The first arrest in December 2022 was followed by a ban beyond the zone and a charge. Both were subject to successful challenges – with the police first accepting representations that the bail conditions were unnecessary and disproportionate. In February, the case was eventually dismissed by the court and Vaughan-Spruce was acquitted after the Crown Prosecution Service offered no evidence in support of the charges. 

Despite the clear position of the CPS and court, Isabel was arrested for precisely the same conduct in March and issued the same onerous bail conditions – banning her again beyond the zone. With the support of her legal team, Isabel again challenged the ban, pointing out that it was effected for an improper purpose, and it was overturned. This, however, still left Isabel banned from the censorship area without any clarity as to why her actions were considered unlawful. This week, that ban was lifted, with West Midlands police apologising for the delay and confusion. 

The police’s power to impose onerous bail conditions was expanded amidst a raft of recent public order reforms. Last year the government introduced the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 allowing officers to restrict freedoms for up to nine months without reference to the courts. This was followed by the Public Order Act 2023 which received royal assent last month. Section 9 of the Act criminalises any intentional or reckless “influencing” of women seeking to access abortion services within 150 metres of abortion facilities across England and Wales.  

Vaughan-Spruce has volunteered to support women in crisis pregnancies for twenty years. In February, she was cleared of criminal charges for violating a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO), which enforces a censorship zone around the abortion facility on Station Road, Birmingham. The full text of the PSPO, banning prayer, among other activities considered to constitute protest, is available here.

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