High Court gives pro-life campaigners SPUC green light to challenge Brandon Lewis over his new abortion powers in Northern Ireland

The High Court has given pro-life campaigners permission to challenge the Secretary of State’s new powers to direct Stormont to expand abortion services.

Wednesday, 2nd June 2021, 12:47 pm
Updated Wednesday, 2nd June 2021, 4:49 pm

The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) was today granted leave to seek a judicial review of regulations which give Brandon Lewis the authority to direct all Northern Ireland departments and public health body to commission full abortion services across Northern Ireland. However critics say the move seriously undermines devolution.

Although Westminster controversially relaxed NI’s strict abortion legislation in 2019 there has been little expansion of staff and resources to bring services up to a comparative capacity with the rest of the UK. As a result many women are still reportedly travelling to England for abortions.

Mr Justice Colton ruled today that SPUC had made an arguable case and said a full hearing will take place at the end of this month.

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Anti abortion demonstrators outside Belfast High Court as a legal challenge against Northern Ireland Secretary of State Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Executive and the Department of Health over the failure to commission and fund abortion services in Northern Ireland continues. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

The proceedings represent the latest stage in ongoing legal battles over Northern Ireland’s abortion laws.

Last week judgment was reserved in a separate challenge by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. It claims the Stormont Executive, the Department of Health and the Secretary of State have all abdicated their legal responsibilities to expand abortion services in NI.

Mr Lewis has already indicated that he will take matters into his own hands using his new powers if there is no concrete progress by late July.

But SPUC is now contesting the lawfulness of those powers, with former Attorney General John Larkin QC instructed in a case which claims his new powers are in conflict with constitutional arrangements under the Good Friday Agreement.

Outside court today SPUC’s Northern Ireland Political Officer, Liam Gibson, welcomed the decision to allow its case to advance.

“This is not only a threat to unborn children, but it is a threat to devolution settlement,” he said.

Mr Gibson insisted that only elected representatives in the region should make decisions on abortion.

“The Secretary of State is not answerable to the people, and yet he’s going to overrule the devolution settlement by instructing departmental officials to do what he decides,” he added.

“It’s not supposed to be direct rule from Westminster when it suits Westminster. This is a devolved matter, and it makes what the Secretary of State is trying to do invalid.”

It is anticipated that Mr Justice Colton will hear SPUC’s arguments in full before delivering judgment in both cases.

Emma Campbell of Alliance for Choice commented that it has always been very clear that devolution “does not absolve any country from their commitments to human rights” as agreed by the UK-wide ratification of UN recommendations on abortion for NI.

“What this means is, if any part of the UK causes human rights abuses, like NI has been found to with abortion, a devolution arrangement of governance does not absolve that part of the UK from upholding those rights,” she said.

“Ultimately, it’s a bad look, trying to weasel out of upholding the right to choose, by manipulating a peace agreement for a get-out clause.”

She added: “At least 1,000 people accessed abortions in NI this year already despite the continued barriers, so there is a demonstrable need for these services.”

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