The government’s failure to establish abortion services for women in Northern Ireland is a “lamentable and deeply troubling exercise in finger-pointing,” the High Court in Belfast has heard.
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) is taking Secretary of State Brandon Lewis, as well as the Northern Ireland Executive and the region’s Department of Health, to the High Court for a case challenging their failure to commission and fund abortion services.
Abortion laws in Northern Ireland were liberalised in 2019 following legislation passed by Westminster at a time when the power sharing government in the region had collapsed.
However, while individual health trusts have been offering services on an ad-hoc basis, the regulations were brought forward as the Department of Health had yet to centrally commission the services region-wide.
Opening the case on Wednesday, David Blundell QC, representing the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, said: “This is a challenge to the Secretary of State’s failure expeditiously to provide a comprehensive abortion service in Northern Ireland.”
He added: “I want to make four headline points at the outset. First of all, abortion is now legal in Northern Ireland and has been since March 31st, 2020.
“Secondly, the Secretary of State is under a legal duty imposed by Parliament to introduce the required abortion services expeditiously, recognising the importance of doing so to the human rights of women in Northern Ireland.
“Thirdly, in practice, women in Northern Ireland do not have access to abortion services to which they are entitled by law, so that is more than a year, 14 months, without those services.
“Fourthly, we say the impact on those women is significant and has been known by the Secretary of State.”
Mr Blundell added: “Having established a domestic right to abortion, the State has to make it practically available.
“Overall, what emerges is a lamentable and deeply troubling exercise in finger-pointing and the abdication of legal responsibility.
“The Secretary of State says it is for the department to commission services and the Department has failed to do so. The department says it is obliged to bring the matter to the attention of the Executive. The Executive denies that it is anything to do with it.”
Last month, the House of Commons formally approved regulations which enable Mr Lewis to take action on rolling out abortion services in Northern Ireland.
The NIHRC’s case supports a woman who was affected by the lack of commissioning of services during the Covid-19 pandemic.
She has been granted anonymity by the court.
Speaking before the hearing began, chief commissioner of the NIHRC Les Allamby said the legal action is to ensure access to abortion services.
“The Commission believes that the failure of the NI Executive and Department of Health to enable the funding and commissioning of abortion services in Northern Ireland breaches the European Convention on Human Rights,” he said.
“We are disappointed at having to take legal action again. However, whilst women’s and girls’ human rights continue to be violated, we will continue to challenge the law and practice in Northern Ireland.
“We would like to thank the woman who has bravely supported this case and shared her story to help (prevent) further women and girls from having to go through such experiences in the future.”