The Northern Ireland Secretary faces being dragged through the courts over the controversial abortion framework due to come into force ahead of 31 March 2020.
The threat of a legal challenge is outlined in a pre-action notice sent today by lawyers acting on behalf of Right To Life UK to NI Secretary of State Brandon Lewis. The pre-action notice warns that the organisation will be taking legal action against the Government if the final abortion framework introduced to Northern Ireland goes further than the Government is legally required to introduce.
The Government are legally required, by the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, to introduce a limited abortion framework in the province ahead of 31 March 2020. The Government has launched a consultation on a proposed abortion framework for Northern Ireland which goes far beyond the limited changes strictly necessary for the Government to comply with the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019.
The pre-action notice outlines that should the Government proceed to implement the proposals as outlined in the consultation document into the final framework for the provision of abortion services in Northern Ireland, the Government would be acting unlawfully.
The notice outlines that any regulations created to give effect to the Government’s duty under section 9(1) of the Northern Ireland Act would be susceptible to judicial review. The solicitors have outlined that the organisation would have standing to bring forward such proceedings. Right To Life UK has therefore put the Government on notice that they will seek to challenge, by way of judicial review, any provision which unlawfully seeks to impose abortion on Northern Ireland beyond the legal obligation dictated by the Northern Ireland Act.
The Government has consistently and repeatedly underlined its commitment to devolution in Northern Ireland, particularly as it relates to the issue of abortion, emphasising that the best place for decisions on abortion to be made is at the Northern Ireland Assembly, by the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland Assembly was not operating when the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 passed. On 11 January 2020 the Northern Ireland Assembly reconvened and therefore the Government should only introduce the minimum that is legally required to comply with the Act, and leave any other changes to the law to the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Background on the changes
The proposed framework drops many of the current legal safeguards provided by the Abortion Act in England and Wales. The proposals open up abortion provision to any healthcare professional, which could include pharmacists, nurses, midwives, healthcare assistants, art therapists and dieticians. It also drops the requirement that two doctors sign off on an abortion.
The proposal includes virtually no legal limit on the locations where abortions can take place, potentially allowing for the home use of both abortion pills, along with abortion provision in pharmacies, GP surgeries, school nurse clinics, mobile abortion clinics and ‘telemed’ abortions.
In practice, abortion on demand would be available up to either 22 or 24 weeks under mental health grounds. Abortion without certification would be available up to either 12 or 14 weeks. This would allow sex-selective abortions to be available on-demand through this period with no specific provision banning sex-selective abortion through to 22/24 weeks.
The proposal would also see abortion for disabilities, including cleft lip, club foot and Down’s syndrome introduced to Northern Ireland, available right through to birth.
A new poll organised by the University of Liverpool and Britain’s Economic and Social Research Council has shown that 58% of Sinn Féin voters and 54% of DUP voters want their country’s new abortion framework to only allow abortions when the mother’s life is at risk. Only 5% of all voters support introducing abortion through to 24 weeks, which is in line with what the Government has proposed introducing to Northern Ireland. This is a clear rejection of the extreme proposed abortion framework that the UK Government wants to impose on the people of Northern Ireland.
A spokesperson for Right To Life UK, Catherine Robinson said:
“Today our lawyers have issued a pre-action notice to the Government informing them that, should they proceed to implement abortion proposals that go far beyond what they are legally required to introduce to Northern Ireland, the Government would be acting unlawfully.
The notice outlines that any regulations created to give effect to the Government’s duty under section 9(1) of the Northern Ireland Act would be susceptible to judicial review and that our lawyers have outlined that we would have standing to bring forward such proceedings. We have therefore put the Government on notice that we will seek to challenge, by way of judicial review, any provision which unlawfully seeks to impose abortion on Northern Ireland beyond the legal obligation dictated by the Northern Ireland Act.
The UK Government has proposed introducing an extreme abortion framework to Northern Ireland, which goes far beyond what it is legally required to introduce.
With Stormont restored, it is vital that the people of Northern Ireland have a say on their country’s new abortion framework through their elected representatives in the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is therefore only appropriate that the Government introduce only the minimum that is legally required to comply with the Act, and leave any other changes to the law to the Northern Ireland Assembly.
If the UK Government pushes ahead with their extreme abortion framework proposals, they would be acting unlawfully and would be undermining the devolution settlement at a time when it is already fragile.
To stand up for the devolution settlement; to show that they are listening to the voters of Northern Ireland; to be consistent with their party’s own position; and ultimately, to protect the unborn child and women facing unplanned pregnancies, we urge the Government to drop their proposed extreme abortion framework for Northern Ireland, and only implement what that they are legally bound to do.”