The first experiment to decriminalise prostitution in Britain suffered a severe setback in the courts yesterday.
A judge sitting in Edinburgh ruled that the decision by the city council to grant entertainment licences to "saunas" and "massage parlours", which councillors knew were brothels, was illegal. Members of the council's licensing committee had ignored evidence of prostitution, the court found. The ruling is a serious blow to the local authority's plans to reduce street prostitution. It will be studied by other councils, in particular Birmingham and Bristol, which are considering relaxing restrictions on the sex industry.
Last year, Edinburgh councillors began to license saunas in the city's Leith area in an effort to cut street crime and improve public health. Dickie Alexander, the convener of the licensing committee, said: "We know what people get up to in saunas but we go ahead and license them because we know that if we do not, the trade will go back on to the streets which poses even greater dangers."
But one woman living near the site of a proposed sauna challenged the policy. Debra Scanlan, 29, who lives next to the Gemini sauna in Leith, appealed to the Sheriff Court to overturn the licensing committee's decision to grant a licence to Gemini's owner, Ian Haig.
Andrew Hajducki QC, counsel for Mrs Scanlan, told the court that Mr Haig's submissions to the licensing committee included numerous references to combating kerb-crawling, protecting the public and reducing disease. It was clear, he argued, that the premises would not simply be a "centre for reflexology, massage and aromatherapy" but it would offer sex.
For Mr Haig, John Baird, said the committee had fulfilled its statutory responsibilities to examine the premises and was not a forum for a public debate on prostitution. But Sheriff Nigel Thomson ruled there was a "mass of material" which indicated that Gemini would be a brothel. Councillors were aware that brothels were illegal and had been "wrong in law" to grant the licence. He revoked it, remitting it to the committee.
Mrs Scanlan welcomed the ruling. Her solicitor, Robert Hayhow, said the council would now have "look very closely" at how it handled future licence applications. Councillors have approved some 20 saunas so far. All are now under threat.
Edinburgh District Council said it would appeal against the judgment. Lesley Hinds, the council leader, said the decision would not affect future applications from sauna owners.