Northern Ireland’s strict abortion laws are incompatible with human rights legislation, a High Court judge has said.
The landmark ruling could pave the way for the relaxation of the current prohibition on women accessing terminations in cases of rape, incest or where there is a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality.
Mr Justice Horner told a packed hearing at Belfast High Court: “There is near unanimity among the parties in this judicial review, and that includes the (Northern Ireland Human Rights) Commission, that for this court to try and read the impugned provisions in a Convention-compliant way would be a step too far.
“Having given due consideration to all submissions and the arguments raised therein, I conclude that such a view is correct.
“Accordingly, as indicated in my judgment, and for the reasons set out in that judgment and as a matter of last resort, I make a declaration of incompatibility.”
The judge’s declaration, which can be appealed, does not immediately lift the current ban but puts the onus on the Stormont Assembly to legislate on the contentious issue.
Last month Judge Horner ruled that the region’s near blanket ban on abortion contravened human rights legislation.
In a lengthy judgement which was delivered over two hours, he said the failure to provide exceptions to the law in certain limited circumstances breached a woman’s right to privacy.
In cases of fatal foetal abnormality (FFA), the judge concluded that the mother’s inability to access an abortion was a “gross interference with her personal autonomy” and where a sexual crime has occurred a disproportionate burden is placed on victims, the judge said.
Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland where abortions are illegal except where the life or mental health of the mother is in danger.
Anyone who performs an illegal termination could be jailed for life.
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission brought the challenge against the Department of Justice (DoJ) which, following a public consultation, had recommended a law change in circumstances of fatal foetal abnormality.
The Commission argued that the DoJ had not gone far enough and the current law was incompatible with human rights legislation regarding inhuman and degrading treatment, privacy and discrimination.
Legal argument from both sides was heard over three days in June.
Judge Horner had two options - to “read down” the current legislation to include fatal foetal abnormality and pregnancies arising from a sexual crime or to make a “declaration of incompatibility”.
Amnesty International has called for an urgent change to the law in light of the new ruling.
Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty’s Northern Ireland programme director, said: “Today’s High Court decision is a clear call to the Northern Ireland Assembly to bring abortion laws into the 21st century.”
The NIHRC’s chief commissioner Les Allamby said: “We welcome the court’s decision today to grant a declaration of incompatibility, confirming that the existing termination of pregnancy laws are contrary to human rights.
“It now falls to the department and the Northern Ireland Executive to bring forward legislation to reflect the judgment of the court. The commission will wait to see how the department and the executive will take this forward or if any appeals will be lodged.”