October 1, 2022

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Anti-abortion campaigners have secured a date for their ongoing challenge to Westminster’s legal authority to direct the establishment of abortion services in Northern Ireland.

Earlier this year, Belfast High Court held that the Secretary of State was entitled to impose a deadline on the Stormont Executive to commission a centralised system.

But the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (Spuc) is seeking to overturn that ruling amid claims that only elected representatives in the North should be able to decide on the issue.

On Tuesday, Lady Chief Justice Dame Siobhan Keegan listed the case for a two-day hearing at the Court of Appeal in November.

The case represents the latest stage in a protracted legal battle over Northern Ireland’s abortion laws.

In 2019, MPs passed legislation to decriminalise terminations at a time when devolution had collapsed. But a centralised model to operate across Northern Ireland was not put in place due to an impasse at Stormont.

In a separate case brought by the NI Human Rights Commission, the High Court has ruled that former Secretary of State Brandon Lewis failed in his legal duty to “expeditiously” provide women with access to full services.

Under the liberalised laws, terminations are allowed in Northern Ireland in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and in limited circumstances up to 24 weeks. The regime change brought in by Westminster followed a report by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which found their rights were being breached by limited access to services.

Under the terms of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, the Secretary of State had to implement the CEDAW recommendations in Northern Ireland. Section 9 of the Act imposed specific duties on him about the provision of abortion and post-abortion services.

A direction was issued last July for the Department of Health to set up full abortion services by March this year.

Spucdisputes the legality of the move made under the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2021. Based on constitutional arrangements enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement, the organisation claims Stormont is not duty bound to comply with any edicts.

According to counsel for Spuc, the Secretary of State has no legal right to “boss people about”.

However, a High Court judge disagreed and found that section 9 of the 2019 Act gave “broad, expansive powers” as part of parliamentary sovereignty. He also rejected claims that the 2021 Regulations contravened the Northern Ireland Protocol, EU law and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

That determination will now be subject to further judicial scrutiny when full arguments are set out in the Court of Appeal.

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