A landmark legal challenge to a Northern Ireland woman being charged with procuring her teenage daughter’s abortion has been put on hold.
Judges in Belfast adjourned proceedings for the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) to provide more information on how it reviewed the case following a Supreme Court verdict on the region’s termination laws.
Specific focus is to be placed on the potential impact on the human rights of the woman’s daughter.
Re-listing the hearing for two days in November, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan said: “For us to deal with it in the absence of an understanding of the PPS response to the judgment of the Supreme Court would be entirely inappropriate.”
Lawyers for the mother and daughter are seeking a judicial review amid claims that subjecting the older woman to criminal proceedings is inhuman.
They also contend that the PPS decision breaches privacy rights in a case involving an unwanted pregnancy from an allegedly abusive relationship.
Outside court, Jemma Conlon of Stephen Chambers Solicitors, said: “My client is a devoted mother who, along with her daughter, has had to constantly relive a traumatic and private family matter under the weight of this prosecution.
“This has caused them immense distress and anguish which has been constant over the past five years.”
Reporting restrictions have been imposed to protect the identities of both mother and daughter.
Abortions are currently only legal in Northern Ireland if the pregnant female’s life or long-term health is at serious risk.
In 2013, the then-15-year-old girl fell pregnant after being involved in a relationship which was said to be both physically and verbally abusive.
Feeling unable to travel to England for a termination, her mother purchased abortion pills online.
The parent now faces two charges of unlawfully procuring and supplying drugs with intent to procure a miscarriage, contrary to the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act.
But according to the family’s legal team compelling the girl to continue with her pregnancy would have breached rights to protection from inhuman and degrading treatment.
Prosecuting her mother for enabling her to access medication to obtain an abortion also violated those entitlements and rights to privacy and family life, it is contended.
Further issues have been raised about the disclosure of information from a GP and child and adolescent mental health services as part of the police investigation and subsequence decision to prosecute.
The case was due to get underway at the High Court in Belfast today.
However, Sir Declan questioned counsel on the impact of a ruling from the Supreme Court in June.
In that case the justices dismissed an appeal over the legality of Northern Ireland’s abortion law.
But a majority held that the existing regime was incompatible with human rights law in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and sexual crime.
“I don’t see in the affidavits that there’s any indication of whether the PPS has formed a view as to whether the Article 8 rights of the second applicant (the daughter) have been breached by the unavailability of termination and the prosecution in relation to that,” he said.
Tony McGleenan QC, for the PPS, confirmed no formal review took place following the Supreme Court decision, but said his client had looked at the issue in preparation for the case.
Karen Quinlivan QC, representing the mother and daughter, insisted: “Our basic case is that bringing a prosecution breaches Article 8 and Article 3 (of the European Convention on Human Rights).”
Following discussions with his judicial colleague Sir Ronnie Weatherup, Sir Declan announced the case as being put on hold.
Directing the PPS to provide a response within two weeks, he also disclosed that a third judge will be brought in due to the significance of the challenge.
“I’m sorry we haven’t been able to proceed, but this is an extremely important case and its quite complex,” he added.
As the hearing was adjourned Ms Conlon insisted her client was being criminalised for helping her daughter in a harrowing situation.
“An innocent family has effectively been punished for being open and honest with medical practitioners and police,” she said outside court.
“We hope the court will take the view that the prosecution of my client is wrong and contrary to their human rights.
“We want them to be allowed to move on with their lives in the privacy of their own family unit.”