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Northern Ireland secretary failed to comply with abortion duty, judge rules

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: James McCauley/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: James McCauley/Rex/Shutterstock

The Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, has failed to uphold his duties to provide full abortion services in the region, a high court judge has ruled.

The ruling will put the government in Westminster under pressure to address the situation in Northern Ireland, where women are struggling to access safe abortion services more than 18 months after the procedure was made legal in the country.

Mr Justice Colton said that between April 2020 and March 2021 the secretary of state failed to comply with his duties under section 9 of the Northern Ireland Executive Formation Act 2019 because he “failed to ensure expeditiously that the state provide women with access to high-quality abortion and post-abortion care in all public facilities in Northern Ireland”.

But he stopped short of making any order compelling Lewis to set out a timetable for the provision of the services. The judicial review was brought by a woman told to travel to England for an abortion during the pandemic lockdown on behalf of Northern Ireland’s human rights commission (NIHRC). Claims brought against the Northern Ireland Department of Health and executive were dismissed.

Experts have warned that women are still being forced to use unregulated services and travel to England and Ireland, including during the pandemic.

Abortion was decriminalised in Northern Ireland in October 2019 after a Westminster vote led by the Labour MP Stella Creasy took advantage of a paralysed Stormont, despite an 11th-hour attempt by the region’s assembly to block the change. But since then Northern Ireland’s Department of Health has not commissioned or funded any services. Some trusts have attempted providing a service without funding or a commissioned framework, with some areas relying on a single clinician.

After the ruling Creasy said politicians who had “dragged their feet” in providing legal abortion had to act.

“Today thehigh court told them enough is enough. The secretary of state must now urgently set out how he intends to comply with the law, stop those who oppose it from denying provision through bureaucratic hurdles and uphold the human rights of women in Northern Ireland,” she said.

After the legal proceedings were launched this year, Lewis formally directed Stormont to commission the services before the end of March 2022, but the NIHRC says the situation has not improved.

The Western trust, which covers Derry, has not provided a service since June, with the judge noting on Thursday that women in Northern Ireland faced a postcode lottery if they were seeking an abortion.

Delivering his ruling at Belfast high court on Thursday, Colton said: “Those who are in public office, including the judiciary, must obey and apply the law. It should not be necessary for a court to mandate something by way of judicial review in circumstances where those in public office are not prepared to comply with their legal obligations because they disagree with the relevant law.”

The chief commissioner of the NIHRC, Alyson Kilpatrick, welcomed the judgment, saying it was vital to uphold the human rights of women and girls in Northern Ireland.

Kilpatrick said the UN committee on the elimination of discrimination against women report had found that the rights of women and girls in Northern Ireland were being violated and said she hoped the judgment would force the Department of Health in Northern Ireland to take action.

“While different parts of government argue about who is responsible, women and girls continue to have to travel to England to access abortion services, are forced to continue a pregnancy against their wishes or take unregulated abortion pills,” she said. “These are decisions women and girls shouldn’t need to make in 2021. This is not just about a legal argument it is affecting real people every day.”

The Guardian has approached the Northern Ireland Office for comment.

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