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07th Jun 2018

Supreme Court dismisses Northern Irish abortion appeal, but notes law is in breach of human rights

'The court does not have jurisdiction to make a declaration of incompatibility in this case'

Dave Hanratty

‘The court does not have jurisdiction to make a declaration of incompatibility in this case’

The UK Supreme Court has dismissed an appeal by human rights campaigners hoping to decriminalise Northern Ireland’s strict abortion law.

However, a majority of the seven judges presiding over the appeal declared that Northern Ireland’s law on abortion is “incompatible” with Human Rights Law.

It was ruled that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission did not have the power to bring a case, due to the law’s rights not being infringed with.

As it currently stands, abortion is only legal in Northern Ireland if the life of the woman is endangered.

The Supreme Court ruling, released on Thursday morning, highlights that the current law is “disproportionate and incompatible” in relation to Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

Article 8 provides a right to respect for one’s “private and family life, his home and his correspondence”, subject to certain restrictions that are “in accordance with law” and “necessary in a democratic society.”

“A majority of the court dismisses the appeal,” notes the Supreme Court statement.

“A majority concludes that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission does not have standing to bring these proceedings. As such, the court does not have jurisdiction to make a declaration of incompatibility in this case.

“A minority of the court considers that NIHRC does have standing to bring these proceedings. A majority of the court does however consider that the current law in Northern Ireland is disproportionate and incompatible with Art 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.”

The statement goes on to declare that the panel considers it “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.”

Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland campaigner Grainne Teggart called the Supreme Court’s admission “hugely significant” and put pressure on Prime Minister Theresa May to act.

“The highest court in the land has ruled that the UK is in breach of its own human rights obligations to women in Northern Ireland who are governed by this draconian law,” said Teggart.

“This is hugely significant and makes clear there is nowhere left for the government to hide on this issue.”

“All eyes are now on the UK Government,” Teggart added.

“Theresa May can no longer sit back and do nothing whilst countless women continue to suffer on her watch.

“This must be the final nail in the coffin for Northern Ireland’s abortion ban. The Prime Minister must commit to reforming abortion law immediately or be complicit in the harm and inequality caused by the existing law. A failure to act would be a cruel betrayal of women.”

Following the results of the Republic of Ireland’s Eighth Amendment Referendum, renewed pressure has been cast on the Northern Ireland Assembly to reform and legislate for abortion there.

An emergency debate on the issue of abortion in Northern Ireland was held in the House of Commons on Tuesday.

British Prime Minister Theresa May has previously insisted that any decision on abortion in the region is a matter for Northern Ireland’s locally elected politicians at Stormont.

Speaking to assembled media on Thursday morning, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, meanwhile, stated that the issues relating to Northern Ireland’s abortion law should be decided “by the people who live in Northern Ireland.”

Varadkar also spoke of his regret at the absence of a Stormont Assembly.