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Supreme Court delivers judgment in Northern Ireland termination of pregnancy law challenge

A majority of Supreme Court Justices concludes that the appellant did not have standing to bring the proceedings but considers that the current law in Northern Ireland is “deeply unsatisfactory”.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission's (NIHRC's) appeal to challenge the termination of pregnancy law in Northern Ireland has been dismissed by the Supreme Court.

A majority of the Supreme Court Justices dismissed the appeal. A majority (Lord Mance, Lord Reed, Lady Black and Lord Lloyd-Jones) concluded that NIHRC did not have standing to bring the proceedings so that the court did not have jurisdiction to make a declaration of incompatibility in this case. A minority of the Justices (Lady Hale, Lord Kerr and Lord Wilson) considered that NIHRC did have standing to bring the proceedings.

However, the majority of the Justices (Lady Hale, Lord Mance, Lord Kerr and Lord Wilson) considered that the current law in Northern Ireland is disproportionate and incompatible with Article 8 ECHR insofar as that law prohibits abortion in cases of (a) fatal foetal abnormality, (b) pregnancy as a result of rape and (c) pregnancy as a result of incest. Lady Black joins that majority on (a) but not on (b) or (c). A minority of the court (Lord Reed, Lady Black on (b) and (c) and Lord Lloyd-Jones) considered that it is not possible to conclude in the abstract, in proceedings of the present nature (as distinct from individual applications), that the current law is disproportionate or incompatible with Art 8.

A majority of the court (Lord Mance, Lord Reed, Lady Black and Lord Lloyd-Jones) concluded that the current law, in the abstract, is not incompatible with Art 3 ECHR. A minority of the Justices (Lord Kerr and Lord Wilson) disagreed and considered that it is. Lady Hale expressed sympathy with the view expressed by Lord Kerr but did not consider it necessary to decide on incompatibility in relation to Article 3 in light of her decision on Art 8.

The Chief Commissioner of NHRC, Les Allamby, commented:

"The Highest Court in the UK has today agreed with the Commission that Northern Ireland's laws on Termination of Pregnancy are incompatible with human rights. We took this case to bring greater clarity to the law and we welcome the Court's decision. For over five years now the Commission has exhausted every legal hurdle. We would like to acknowledge everyone who has been involved in working alongside us. In particular, the Commission pays tribute to the many women and girls who have spoken publicly about their difficult personal experiences since we embarked on this case.

The Commission took this case to support and protect women and girls in Northern Ireland and we will continue to do this by whatever means we can. There is a much greater open public debate about the issue and the need for reform. The law now needs to change to stop women and girls from further anxiety and suffering. In the absence of the NI Executive and Assembly it falls to the UK Government to make this change and it must act without delay. The Commission is disappointed that the Court did not support the arguments that we had sufficient powers to take the case in our own name. We acted in this way in order prevent any woman or girl from having to face the burden of doing so. One issue all the judges agreed on was that the current law in Northern Ireland is deeply unsatisfactory. As a result, it is clear we need to bring our own laws on termination into compliance with human rights standards."

For the Supreme Court Press summary click here 

For the Supreme Court Judgment click here

For a Guardian article by Owen Bowcott, their Legal affairs correspondent click here

For BBC News coverage click here