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NI Human Rights Commission Welcomes Abortion Services Challenge

14 Oct 2021

The Northern Ireland High Court has today delivered its judgment in the Human Rights Commission’s judicial review challenge to: the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland; the NI Executive; and, the Department of Health for Northern Ireland. The challenge was in respect of the failure to commission and fund abortion services in Northern Ireland.

Chief Commissioner Alyson Kilpatrick commented:

This was an important case for the Commission to take to uphold the human rights of women and girls in Northern Ireland. We welcome the High Court judgment today and will now take time to review the impact of the decision.

Abortion was legalised in Northern Ireland in 2019 yet in 2021 women and girls continue to have to travel to England to access abortion services, are forced to continue a pregnancy against their wishes or take unregulated abortion pills. The Commission brought this case because of the unacceptable delay in the provision of adequate services.

As a result of the Commission’s previous case in the UK Supreme Court, provision was made for the delivery of services (by the Abortion (No.2) Regulations 2020) to women and girls in Northern Ireland. It remains the case that there is a legal obligation to provide and fund adequate services in Northern Ireland. Moreover, the Secretary of State’s Direction requires adequate service to be in place by no later than March 2022. This judgment has not displaced the obligation to provide those services, but we remain concerned at the likelihood of further delay continuing.

Given the violation of the rights of women and girls highlighted so starkly in the United Nations CEDAW report, we will continue to work to ensure that an appropriate level of service is provided in Northern Ireland.

The Commission notes the Judges observation that the Commissions letter before action prompted the Secretary of State to take action. We hope the judgment does the same for Department of Health. The NI Executives responsibility to uphold the human rights of women and girls remains. We will continue to monitor progress on the Commissioning and funding of the service in Northern Ireland.”

Notes to editors

What is the current law in Northern Ireland on Abortion?

1. Since 31 March 2020, terminations have been legalised in Northern Ireland (NI) in a number of circumstances, including under any circumstances by a registered doctor, nurse or midwife up to 12 weeks and where there is a risk to physical or mental health in the opinion of two registered medical professionals up to 24 weeks.

Terminations with no gestational limit are also now legal in NI where there is an immediate necessity to save a life or to prevent a grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of a pregnant woman, or in cases of severe fetal impairment or fatal fetal abnormality.

The new law was introduced in the Northern Ireland Exective Formation Act 2019 requiring the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to implement in full the recommendations of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women inquiry (CEDAW) into abortion in NI, which held that the (then) law created grave and serious violations of human rights.

2. The Abortion Services Directions 2021 were issued by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on 22 July 2021. Direction and Written Ministerial Statement.

3. The Commission’s case heard supporting affidavit evidence from a woman who was affected by the lack of commissioning of services during the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2020, the woman was told she could not have an abortion through her local trust as the service was unavailable in her area. She was told she would instead have to travel to England during the pandemic to have her abortion. She has been granted anonymity by the Court.

4. For further information on this case view the Commissions Fact Sheet here

5. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is an independent statutory body first proposed in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement (1998) and established in 1999 by the Northern Ireland Act (1998). It is answerable to Parliament at Westminster.

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