Human rights commission appeals NI abortion ruling

Case focuses on whether assembly or courts should decide on abortion law in the North

The board of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission on Thursday decided to appeal a Belfast Court of Appeal ruling that it is for the Northern Assembly rather than the courts to decide on abortion law in Northern Ireland.

On Thursday, the Court of Appeal quashed the Belfast High Court declaration of December 2015 which would have made abortion legal in Northern Ireland in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality.

At the time, Mr Justice Mark Horner held that abortion legislation in Northern Ireland breached Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to privacy. In Thursday’s ruling the three Court of Appeal overturned that ruling. However, it indicated that if it received an application to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court in London by Friday it would be minded to grant such an appeal. The court rises for its summer recess after Friday.

The head of the commission Les Allamby said this was “unprecedented and reflects recognition of how important the judges consider the issue to be”.


The commission’s board on Thursday afternoon decided it will lodge an appeal to the Supreme Court in England following on from the Court of Appeal invitation.

“We will continue to seek a change to the law so that women and girls in Northern Ireland have the choice of accessing a termination of pregnancy locally in circumstances of serious malformation of the foetus, rape or incest, without being criminalised for doing so,” said Mr Allamby. “The commission will lodge our application for leave to the Supreme Court tomorrow.”

The commission so far has spent £111,428 on the case.

Lord Justice John Gillen said: “Abortion is a classic instance of the type of highly controversial issue touching on social, moral and religious policies on which there is no consensus either in Europe or, for that matter, in this jurisdiction. Such an issue requires Parliament to be allowed a wide margin of judgment.”

Assembly vote

Northern Ireland Assembly members last year voted against legalising abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.

“It is a matter of extraordinary complexity and moral entanglement on which views have shifted over the decades,” said Lord Justice Gillen. “Into this arena the court should fear to tread and ought to adopt an approach of balanced impartiality and well-judged caution if the appropriate constitutional balance is to be preserved. I consider that a fair balance has been struck by the law as it presently stands until the legislature decides otherwise.”

Following the judgment, Bernie Smyth, director of the pro-life Precious Life lobby group, greeted cheering supporters outside court in Belfast city centre. “This has been a great victory here, a victory for democracy, a victory for the right to life,” she said. “We have a statement that states very clearly that the right to life is granted neither by judges nor politicians but it is their duty to protect it.”

In 2013, Sarah Ewart travelled to England for a termination after doctors said her unborn child could not survive. She said Stormont politicians needed to get together to help women who find themselves in similar situations. “I am devastated at today’s court ruling,” she said.

Grainne Teggart, a campaigner at Amnesty International in Belfast, said: “Today’s court ruling is an utter betrayal of women in Northern Ireland who find themselves in these tragic circumstances.”

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times