Northern Ireland

Abortion: NI Human Rights Commission to 'cross appeal' legal challenges

The justice minister says he is lodging an appeal to a High Court ruling that abortion law in Northern Ireland is "incompatible" with human rights law Image copyright Science Photo Library
Image caption The justice minister says he is lodging an appeal to a High Court ruling that abortion law in Northern Ireland is "incompatible" with human rights law

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has said it will 'cross appeal' legal challenges to abortion law in Northern Ireland.

In December, a judge ruled the law does not comply with the European Convention on Human Rights in cases of fatal foetal abnormality or sexual crime.

The case was brought by the commission.

Following the ruling, Stormont's justice minister and Northern Ireland's attorney general said they would lodge appeals to the High Court ruling.

On Wednesday, David Ford announced he was lodging an appeal to the ruling that abortion law in Northern Ireland is "incompatible" with human rights law.

He said he was concerned that a lack of "legal certainty" could lead inadvertently to abortion on demand.

On Monday, Northern Ireland Attorney General John Larkin also lodged an appeal to the judgement.

The current legislation differs from the rest of the UK as the 1967 Abortion Act was never extended to Northern Ireland.

'Cross appeal'

Currently, a termination is only permitted in Northern Ireland if a woman's life is at risk or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.

In a statement on Wednesday, the chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, Les Allamby, said: "The commission will now cross appeal both the Department of Justice and the attorney general.

"We will re-introduce all of the original grounds brought before the court.

Image caption Les Allamby said the commission would continue to seek a change to the law so that the human rights of women and girls are protected when facing these difficult decisions

"The choice of accessing a termination of pregnancy in circumstances of serious malformation of foetus (including fatal foetal abnormality), rape or incest, without being criminalised for doing so, should be made available in Northern Ireland.

"The commission continues to seek a change to the law so that the human rights of women and girls are protected when facing these difficult decisions.

"The High Court held that Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to family and private life was breached by the general prohibition of abortions in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities and pregnancies as a consequence of sexual crimes."

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission took legal action against Mr Ford's Department of Justice as part of its campaign for a change in the law.

Mr Ford will now challenge part of December's ruling at the High Court in Belfast, where the judge talked about the balance to be struck between the Article 8 rights of a pregnant woman and the Article 2 rights of a foetus.

Real danger

The minister said this could lead to an "incremental widening of abortion law", even further than the 1967 Abortion Act allows in the rest of the UK.

Speaking on BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme, he said: "The real danger is that the way the judgement read human rights law, specifically the article A right to a private life of the woman, against what was said to be no article 2 rights for a foetus."

Mr Ford said this potentially goes "beyond the 1967 act as it applies in the rest of the United Kingdom".

He added that "the way in which the decision was expressed" suggested that "all rights to determine lay with the woman, up to the point of viability for the foetus".

Mr Ford explained that this is not the case elsewhere in the United Kingdom, adding: "I believe that is not what people in Northern Ireland would wish to see.

Pointing the finger at the executive for the lack of legislation on abortion, Mr Ford said: "Ultimately the executive should be approving a paper from the Department of Justice and the assembly should be legislating to ensure that women carrying a foetus with a fatal abnormality are able to access an abortion."

Image caption David Ford says he is concerned that a lack of what he calls "legal certainty" in the judgement

He said his expectation is that his appeal will be heard before the summer, but added that there was "nothing within the court process which would stop the executive and the assembly moving forward with legislation" before then.

Sexual crimes

The minister is also appealing the judge's ruling on sexual crimes, again on the grounds of clarity.

He said it is very difficult to define when sexual crimes have been committed - particularly in a court of law - before a pregnancy has reached full term.

"The reality is that my department consulted over a year ago on the issue of both fatal foetal abnormality and sexual crime," he said.

"In that consultation, it was not possible to see an easy way through as to how you would determine if a sexual crime had happened."

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