Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland abortion ruling to be appealed to London's Supreme Court

Judges said abortion reform should be determined by the Stormont Assembly
Judges said abortion reform should be determined by the Stormont Assembly

By Alan Erwin

A human rights body has received judicial authorisation to appeal a new ruling on Northern Ireland's abortion regime to the UK's highest court, it was confirmed on Friday.

Senior judges in Belfast granted leave for a further challenge to their determination that the near-blanket ban on terminations is not unlawful.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission will now take its case to the Supreme Court in London.

Confirmation came 24 hours after the Court of Appeal overturned a previous landmark verdict that the restrictions are incompatible with human rights legislation.

It held that the socially and morally divisive issue should be dealt with by the Stormont Assembly.

Attorney General John Larkin QC and the Department of Justice had both appealed the earlier ground-breaking finding.

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.

In 2015, a High Court judge ruled the failure to provide abortions for cases of fatal foetal abnormalities (FFAs) and to 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, a judge also made a formal declaration that the legislation is incompatible with the UK's obligations under the Human Rights Act.

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 did not go far enough.

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

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

The court heard claims that the almost complete ban is inhuman and discriminatory.

Counsel 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.

But the Attorney General argued that only those who carry out rapes leading to pregnancies should face the consequences.

He contended that it would be wrong to punish the child for those who commit the "appalling" crimes.

The three appeal judges, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, Lord Justice Gillen and Lord Justice Weatherup quashed the High Court declaration on Thursday.

By a majority view, they concluded that the court should not intervene, instead leaving it for the Assembly to decide on any changes to abortion laws.

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

Lord Justice Gillen stressed that the courts should be cautious about interfering in such a complex and controversial issue touching on social, moral and religious policies on which there is no consensus in Europe or within Northern Ireland.

"Such an issue require Parliament to be allowed a wide margin of judgment," he said.

Recognising his comments would provide no comfort to women in Mrs Ewart's position, he added: "Whatever its defects in the eyes of some, or perhaps many, the current law provides a measure of certainty and legislative accountability.

"I consider that a fair balance has been struck by the law as it presently stands until the legislature decides otherwise."

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