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Timeline: NIHRC challenge to the law on Termination of Pregnancy in Northern Ireland

05 Jun 2018

Human Rights Commission’s challenge to the law on Termination of Pregnancy in Northern Ireland Timeline

1. In November 2013 the Commission had repeatedly advised the Department of Justice Northern Ireland that the existing law violates the human rights of women and girls.

2. In October 2014 the Department of Justice published a public consultation on proposals to amend the criminal law on abortion to allow for termination of pregnancy in cases of lethal foetal abnormality and sought views on sexual crime.

3. In December 2014 the Commission initiated legal proceedings against the Department of Justice as a last resort. In the Commission’s view, the consultation published by the Department did not commit to making the changes that were necessary in law: the consultation addressed cases of lethal foetal abnormality and did not deal with serious malformation of foetus. The consultation sought public opinion on cases of sexual crime including rape and incest without putting forward proposals to change the law.

4. In April 2015 the Department of Justice published its summary of responses to the consultation and announced its intention to bring forward proposals to change the law covering fatal foetal abnormality only. However, the issue never reached NI Executive agenda.

5. 15-17 June 2015 the Commission’s Judicial Review of the law on termination of pregnancy was heard at the High Court. Judgment was reserved at the close of proceedings on 17 June.

6. 30 November 2015 the High Court found in the Commission’s favour ruling that the current law in Northern Ireland is incompatible with human rights based on the breach of Article 8 of the ECHR This was based on the law prohibiting termination of pregnancy in the cases of fatal foetal abnormalities and sexual crime being a violation of women’s right to personal autonomy under Article 8 of the ECHR. As a result the law was not compatible with human rights on that basis. The High Court did not hold that the law on termination was contrary to either Article 3 or Article 14 of the ECHR.

7. 16 December 2015 the High Court granted a Declaration of Incompatibility under the HRA 1998.

8. January 2016 the Attorney General and the Department of Justice both appealed the ruling of the High Court. The Commission cross-appealed and re-introduced all of the original grounds it brought before the High Court in 2015.

9. 11 February 2016 members of the Northern Ireland Assembly vote against legalising abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality (by 59 votes to 40) and cases of sexual crime (by 64 votes to 30).

10. 20-24 June 2016 the Commission’s legal challenge to Northern Ireland’s termination of pregnancy laws was heard at the Court of Appeal in Belfast.

11. February 2017 the Attorney General challenged the powers of the Commission to take this case by referring a number of devolution questions to the Supreme Court.

12. 14 June 2017 the Supreme Court rejects an appeal by an anonymous mother and daughter who had taken a case against the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, arguing that women from Northern Ireland should be able to access free NHS abortions in England.

13. 29 June 2017 the Court of Appeal in Belfast dismisses the Commission’s appeal. The Court of Appeal held that the issue of any changes to the law on termination should be left to the NI Assembly.

14. 29 June 2017 the UK Government announces women from Northern Ireland will be entitled to access free NHS abortions in England, after Stella Creasy MP (Labour) amendment on the issue was selected for inclusion in the Queen’s Speech. The amendment had cross-party support, and the UK Government faced defeat on the issue.

15. 3 July 2017 the Court of Appeal in Belfast gave the Commission leave to the appeal to the Supreme Court in London.

16. 23 October 2017 the UK Government Equalities Office issues guidelines offering assistance with travel and other costs on a means tested basis for women travelling from Northern Ireland to seek a termination.

17. 24-26 October 2017 the Supreme Court in London grants an expedited hearing to run from Tuesday 24th October to Thursday 26th October; it was heard by a panel of seven judges.

18. 23 February 2018 the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) released an Inquiry Report on access to Termination of Pregnancy in Northern Ireland. The Report found that the UK government is responsible for systemic violations of human rights by criminalising termination of pregnancy in Northern Ireland. The Committee visited Northern Ireland in September 2016. The report can be found here.

19. 23 February 2018 the UK government issued its response to CEDAW rejecting the conclusion of systematic and grave violations of human rights.

20. 14 March 2018 Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Shailesh Vara MP, responds to a written question from Stella Creasy MP. Ms Creasy had asked what was the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland’s policy on equal direct access to abortion services for women in Northern Ireland. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary confirms the UK Government has made arrangements that women from Northern Ireland will not be charged for termination of pregnancy services in England, and that travel support will be made available for such women who find themselves in a financial hardship situation.

21. 25 April 2018 the publication of the report of an inter-Departmental working group on termination of pregnancies in fatal foetal abnormality cases. The Department of Health and Department of Justice working group report recommends “that a change is made to abortion law to provide for termination of pregnancy where the abnormality is of such a nature as to be likely to cause death either before birth, during birth or in the early period after birth”. The report can be found here.

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