The Health Minister has been accused of wasting public money after revealing his officials had produced guidelines on abortion – just hours before a legal bid to force him to act got under way.
Two days were set aside at the High Court for a judicial review as the Family Planning Association (FPA) continued its bid to force the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) to issue guidance for health professionals on the highly emotive issue.
However, on Tuesday night the DHSSPS revealed it had finalised the guidance and it will be taken to the Executive for approval next week.
As a result, the judicial review expected to get under way yesterday morning was halted when counsel acting for the FPA said the development meant legal action was no longer required.
Senior counsel for the FPA, Tony McGleenan QC, disclosed that a letter was received by his solicitors, Edwards and Co, on Tuesday night confirming the minister's plans.
He said: "Hours before proceedings were due to commence we have this change of position by the minister."
He went on to say Mr Poots "simply didn't engage with the requirements of the pre-action protocol" and did not respond to "reasonable requests made of him".
Speaking after the short hearing, chief executive of the FPA in Northern Ireland Dr Audrey Simpson welcomed the development but raised concerns over the timing.
She said: "We are satisfied that the DHSSPS understand they have a legal and civil duty to produce guidelines for abortion.
"We look forward to seeing a comprehensive document with clear pathways for referral and after-care services.
"Nonetheless, we question why it has taken over a decade for the DHSSPS to agree a timetable for publishing the guidelines and the public money that's been spent in doing so."
Mr Poots has come under fire for the length of time it has taken to produce fresh guidance but argued he wanted to ensure any new guidelines could not be challenged in court.
Pro-life campaigners Precious Life and the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children said they will wait to see the new guidance before making a decision on how to proceed.
However, Bernie Smyth from Precious Life said guidance will only be acceptable if it results in a reduction in the number of terminations carried out in Northern Ireland.
Abortion is only legal in Northern Ireland in very limited circumstances. In 2009 a DHSSPS document for the first time provided guidance to health professionals here on terminating pregnancy. But it was challenged by pro-life campaigners. The High Court ruled it did not properly cover counselling and conscientious objection issues and it was withdrawn for reconsideration.