Court rules Northern Ireland women not entitled to free abortions in England

High Court ruling to be appealed

The High Court in London has ruled that women from Northern Ireland are not entitled to free abortions in England under the British National Health Service.

Mr Justice King rejected an application from an unidentified woman and her daughter called "A" from Northern Ireland who had an abortion when she was 15.

He found that British health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s duty to promote a comprehensive health service in England “is a duty in relation to the physical and mental health of the people of England”, and that duty did not extend “to persons who are ordinarily resident in Northern Ireland”. A’s pregnancy was terminated at the Marie Stopes clinic in Manchester in October 2012. The operation cost £600 plus travel costs of some £300, half of which was provided by the North’s Abortion Network organisation

In the test case, A’s mother said she understood from legal advice that publicly-funded health care services “are intended to be free at the point of use for all UK residents”.

"I feel my daughter has been treated most unfairly, because when she required treatment in another part of the United Kingdom she did not get it, and was offered no assistance by the state health care system."

Mr Justice King however said the mother had misunderstood the legal position. Unless it was an emergency case, services such as abortion were not provided on the NHS in England to people who were "not ordinarily – or usually – resident in England".

He said the difference in the two legal positions was “a consequence of the devolution of powers and duties [within the UK] not only in relation to health care . . . but in relation to criminal law”.

Lawyer Angela Jackman, who represented the daughter and her mother, said the result was “very disappointing” but that the case would be taken to the Court of Appeal.

The 1967 British Abortion Act does not apply in Northern Ireland. Termination in the North is permitted where it is “necessary to preserve the life of the woman or there is a risk of real and serious adverse effect on her physical or mental health, which is either long-term or permanent”.

About 40 legal abortions take place annually in Northern Ireland. In December, the North's Minister for Justice David Ford said he would initiate a consultation on possible changes to abortion law in Northern Ireland that could permit terminations in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.