Irish sex worker and campaigner for rights of prostitutes dies, aged 39

Henry McDonald Ireland correspondent
Lee, a law graduate, said the law had not diminished the supply and demand for sex work in Northern Ireland. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

An Irish sex worker and international campaigner against laws that criminalise the clients of prostitutes has died suddenly, aged 39.

Dublin-born Laura Lee’s death came weeks before a challenge in Belfast high court against legislation that makes it illegal to buy sex in Ireland.

Lee, a law graduate, had argued that the law brought in by the Democratic Unionist peer Lord Morrow via the Stormont assembly would drive prostitution further underground and leave sex workers in greater danger.

Her family posted a message about her death on Facebook.

Lee’s Northern Ireland-based solicitor Ciaran Moynagh paid tribute to her campaigning.

Moynagh said his firm would continue with her high court challenge against the Morrow legislation, which is based on a law pioneered in Sweden that Lee argued had failed to stamp out prostitution.

“We are deeply saddened by the death of our client Laura Lee,” Moynagh said.

“Laura courageously fronted a campaign and judicial review which sought to defend and protect thousands of sex workers who do not have a voice.

“In the face of much opposition she maintained great dignity. Laura Lee will be remembered as one of this country’s most fearless human rights advocates and we are committed to continuing her work.”

Lee had recently crowdfunded more than £7,000 to pay for a judicial review of Morrow’s law.

She and her legal team argued that the law breached her human rights entitlements to privacy and freedom from discrimination.

Last year Lee told the Observer that Morrow’s law had not diminished the supply and demand for sex work in Northern Ireland. She admitted that since her application for judicial review she had received a “tsunami of abuse” on social media.

“They would say things like, ‘I really can’t wait until your daughter goes on the game’ or else religious people would tell me they can’t wait until I burn in the fires of hell,” Lee said.

Her friend, the Belfast-based writer Lyra McKee, said she was struggling to find words to express her grief over Lee’s death.

“My inbox has been flooded by messages from sex workers telling how she was their hero and how she changed their lives. I know I’m not the only person to say this but through her advocacy, she forced me to completely rethink my views on sex work.

“She stood up for the voiceless and she took the arrows for them. My favourite quote on her was from our mutual friend Paul, who said she became a sex worker to throw off the stigma of being a bank manager. Our hearts are broken beyond repair.”