Belfast Telegraph

Woman cleared in abortion case after law change can ‘finally move on’

Abortion was decriminalisation in the region earlier this week.

The woman was acquitted at Belfast Crown Court (Niall Carson/PA)
The woman was acquitted at Belfast Crown Court (Niall Carson/PA)

By David Young, PA

A Northern Ireland woman acquitted of buying abortion pills for her daughter following a landmark law change has expressed relief she can now move on with her life.

A judge directed a jury at Belfast Crown Court to find the 39-year-old mother not guilty following the decriminalisation of abortion in the region earlier this week.

With the law change including a direction that any ongoing prosecutions were discontinued, the Crown offered no evidence to the court on Wednesday morning.

The woman could have faced a potential five-year jail term if she had been convicted of securing pills for her then 15-year-old daughter in 2013.

For the first time in six years I can go back to being the mother I was, without the weight of this hanging over me every minute of every day

The mother, who cannot be named to protect the identity of her daughter, had been charged with two counts of procuring and supplying the abortion drugs with the intent to procure a miscarriage, contrary to the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act.

The relevant sections of the 19th-century legislation fell away at midnight on Monday when abortion was decriminalised.

The move came as a result of legislation passed at Westminster in the ongoing absence of a powersharing executive in Belfast.

After the verdict was returned, the woman at the centre of the controversial case hailed the law change.

“My emotions are all over the place and I find it hard to put into words how I am feeling,” she said in a statement.

“For the first time in six years I can go back to being the mother I was, without the weight of this hanging over me every minute of every day, and I can finally move on with my life.

“I am so thankful that the change in the law will allow other women and girls to deal with matters like this privately in their own family circle.”

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Anna Hughes and Grainne Teggart from Amnesty International, which had been supporting the woman, outside court (Liam McBurney/PA)

Earlier judge David McFarland said that, despite the law being repealed, he was required to go through the legal formalities and swear in a jury.

He explained the law changes to the jury of eight men and four women.

“Some of you may be aware that the law was changed in Northern Ireland at midnight on Monday whereby the sections under which she was charged were repealed,” he said.

“In addition to that, Parliament directed that any ongoing charges in relation to those sections should be discontinued.”

The judge said for those reasons the prosecution would not proceed.

Crown barrister Kate McKay also referenced the terms of new law as she confirmed the end of the prosecution.

“The prosecution offers no evidence in this case,” she said.

The judge then told jurors to find the accused “not guilty by direction”. He then confirmed the woman was formally discharged by the court.

The mother had been excused from attending the short hearing.

While no evidence was presented during the criminal proceedings, the circumstances of the case were outlined last year in a separate High Court challenge taken by the woman.

Judgment has yet to be delivered in that judicial review, in which the mother claimed the decision to prosecute her contravened her human rights.

During those proceedings, the woman’s barrister told the court her daughter was “extremely vulnerable” at the time of her pregnancy, claiming her then ex-boyfriend was “physically and emotionally abusive” toward her.

The lawyer said the GCSE student had gone to her local doctor a week after taking the abortion medication.

Her court heard she was subsequently referred to a mental health counselling service, which in turn informed Social Services. Social Services then alerted the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

The barrister told the High Court investigating police officers then arrived at the child’s school and removed her from a classroom to speak to her in the absence of her parents.

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Solicitor Jemma Conlon reads out her client’s statement to the media outside Belfast Crown Court (Liam McBurney/PA)

After her acquittal on Wednesday, the woman’s solicitor, Jemma Conlon, of Chambers Solicitors, said: “Today is a day of immense relief for my client, who now finds herself free from the burden of this prosecution that has been in her life for six years.

“It is a day that she will forever remember and a day that allows her to finally move on with her life privately without anguish and criminalisation.”

Outside court, Grainne Teggart, from Amnesty International, which had been supporting the woman, said the outcome was evidence of a new “compassionate” legal framework in Northern Ireland.

“Today we are relieved that she can go back to being a mother,” she said.

“What we are seeing today is our new abortion law taking effect. No longer will women be hauled through the courts and treated as criminals for accessing this healthcare service.

“This is the beginning of a new era for Northern Ireland – a more caring and compassionate Northern Ireland. This mother is now free to move on from this ordeal and go back to her family.”

Ms Teggart outlined the impact the prosecution has had on the mother.

“This has had a devastating impact,” she said. “Of course, first and foremost on the mother but also on her daughter. She has been used as tool in her prosecution.

“She turned to her mother for help when she needed it. Her mother did what any other parent would arguably have done and provided that help, and she was prosecuted for doing so – that should never have happened.”

The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 which decriminalised abortion also paved the way for the introduction of same-sex marriage in the region, with the first weddings expected in February.

The Act also includes provisions for a new pension paid to injured victims of the Troubles.

PA

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