Justice Minister David Ford to appeal against High Court ruling on abortion laws
Stormont's Justice Minister is to appeal against a landmark High Court ruling on Northern Ireland's restrictive abortion laws amid concerns it has inadvertently paved the way for terminations on demand.
David Ford said there was a need to clarify Mr Justice Horner's judgment, which declared elements of the region's current law incompatible with human rights legislation.
The ruling focused on ending the ban on women accessing abortion in cases of sexual crime or after a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality (FFA).
However, Mr Ford warned that the judge's words could be interpreted as advocating a near blanket relaxation of abortion legislation.
Northern Ireland's Attorney General John Larkin is also appealing against the judgment, but on different grounds. Mr Larkin is appealing against the entirety of the ruling but Mr Ford, whose department supports a law change in cases of FFA, is challenging specific elements.
While Northern Ireland's laws on terminations are much more restrictive than Great Britain's, the minister claims the judgment had the potential to turn that on its head - leaving the region with the UK's most liberal abortion laws.
"The judgment from the High Court does not fully clarify the law and potentially leaves open the possibility there could be abortion on demand in Northern Ireland on an even wider basis than is the case in the rest of the United Kingdom," said Mr Ford.
The minister said his departmental lawyers became aware of the issue during detailed scrutiny of the judgment.
He said it focused on a section of the ruling where Justice Horner stated that an unborn child's right to life under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) does not apply until the foetus could viably survive outside the womb.
The minister said this could be interpreted as giving an expectant mother a free rein to abort before the point of viability, which is usually estimated at around 22 to 24 weeks. While there is a similar legal limit for abortions elsewhere in the UK - namely 24 weeks - the DoJ contends that some restrictions that apply in GB would not necessarily apply under Justice Horner's ruling.
Mr Ford said he did not think that was the judge's intent.
"My concern is, and obviously this will have to be tested in the Court of Appeal, is the way the judgment has been laid out potentially means we could have no rights for a foetus before its point of viability and therefore the potential that could lead to women seeking an abortion on demand," he said.
"I don't think that was the judge's intention, I don't think that's what the people of Northern Ireland want and that's why I am taking the appeal - to make sure we get clarity around matters like that."
The minister is also challenging the judge's ruling on sexual crimes, arguing that it is very difficult to define those crimes - particularly in a court of law - before pregnancy has reached full term.
The judge's declaration of incompatibility did not immediately change Northern Ireland's abortion laws but had placed an onus on the Stormont Assembly to legislate on the contentious issue.
Mr Ford is currently in the process of trying to gain Stormont Executive approval for legislation that would relax the ban on cases involving fatal foetal abnormalities.
Judge Horner made the ruling in a case taken by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission against the Department of Justice.
Amnesty International has pledged to resist any attempt to overturn the judge's ruling.
Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty's Northern Ireland programme director, said: "It is clear that Northern Ireland's legal framework on abortion is in breach of international human rights standards. Accordingly, Amnesty International will resist any attempt to overturn the High Court decision.
"We note that the minister remains committed to limited reform to the law on abortion in Northern Ireland, and that his appeal is based on the need for 'clarity' on some aspects of the High Court's judgment.
"What is very clear is that the legislation in force in Northern Ireland rides roughshod over the rights of women and girls.
"Rather than endless litigation, we now need legislation from the Northern Ireland Assembly to bring our law into line with international standards.
"According to opinion polls, seven in 10 people in Northern Ireland want to see the law reformed to allow for terminations in cases of rape, incest, or fatal foetal abnormality. That public support must now be translated into political action on behalf of women who are otherwise forced to take the plane to England."