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Judgement expected in September following fresh legal battle over Northern Ireland's abortion laws

By Alan Erwin

Published 23/06/2016

Belfast High Court
Belfast High Court

Judgment has been reserved in a major new legal battle over Northern Ireland's abortion laws.

Attorney General John Larkin QC and Stormont's Department of Justice are both appealing a landmark High Court verdict that the near-blanket ban on terminations is incompatible with human rights legislation.

But following four days of arguments the Lord Chief Justice confirmed a ruling on the challenge will have to wait until September at the earliest.

Sir Declan Morgan said: "We will want to reflect on this and we will not give this decision before the beginning of next term."

Unlike other parts of the UK, terminations are only legal within Northern Ireland to protect the woman's life or if there is a risk of serious damage to her well-being.

Last year a High Court judge ruled the failure to provide exceptions to the near-blanket ban for cases of fatal foetal abnormalities (FFAs) and victims of rape or incest breaches private and family life entitlements under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

In a case brought by the Commission Mr Justice Horner also made a formal declaration that the legislation is incompatible with the UK's obligations under the Human Rights Act.

The Commission is also mounting a cross-appeal in a bid to have the regime further declared in breach of Articles 3 and 14 of the ECHR prohibiting degrading treatment and discrimination.

Legal action began after the Department launched a public consultation on amending the criminal law.

That process concluded with a recommendation for new legislation dealing with cases of FFA.

But with no proposed changes covering pregnancies resulting from sexual crime, the Commission insisted the consultation does not go far enough.

It was also seeking to have terminations legalised in cases of rape or serious foetal malformation.

During the legal battle arguments were also made on behalf of Sarah Ewart - a woman from Northern Ireland who went to England for an abortion after learning her unborn baby had no chance of survival.

The court heard claims that the current near-blanket ban is inhuman and discriminatory.

Nathalie Lieven QC, for the Commission, insisted Mrs Ewart is a victim and argued that the court needs to step in to protect those in her position or teenage victims of family rape.

She also claimed there was hypocrisy in the case because the vast majority of women who find themselves in similar situations travel to the UK to have abortions.

"This isn't about protecting the foetuses," she contended.

"Get real... the foetuses are being aborted."

But responding on Thursday in the Court of Appeal, the Attorney General argued that only those who carry out rapes leading to pregnancies should face the consequences.

Mr Larkin concluded: "Yes, we must punish and investigate and imprison those who commit that appalling crime, but we shouldn't take it out on the child where the law doesn't require us to, nor does the Convention."

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