Legal action against Westminster’s authority to commission abortion services deferred until 2023

Laganside Court UTV
The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children is bringing the legal challenge

Legal action against Westminster’s authority to commission full abortion services in Northern Ireland has been put on hold until next year.

The challenge mounted by the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children was adjourned so that UK Government lawyers can deal with newly introduced arguments.

Lady Chief Justice Dame Siobhan Keegan listed the case for a new hearing date at the Court of Appeal in January.

She told counsel: “It is a pity that we are now in this situation, but we are going to pause to let you have a think about the import of this.”

SPUC is seeking to overturn a High Court ruling that the Secretary of State was entitled to impose a deadline on the Stormont Executive to introduce a centralised system for abortions.

In 2019 MPs passed legislation to decriminalise terminations in Northern Ireland at a time when devolution had collapsed.

The liberalised regime change brought in by Westminster followed a report by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, which found their rights were being breached by limited access to services.

Under the terms of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, former Secretary of State Brandon Lewis had to implement the CEDAW recommendations in Northern Ireland.

Pro-choice protesters outside Stormont

Section 9 of the Act imposed specific duties on him about the provision of abortion and post-abortion services.

Amid the continuing impasse at Stormont, a direction was issued under the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2021 for the Department of Health to set up full services by March this year.

Mr Lewis’ successor, Chris Heaton-Harris, has also pledged his commitment to the move.

But SPUC claims the issue should be decided by MLAs.

In a challenge to the legality of the 2021 Regulations, it contends that the Secretary of State has gone beyond his legal authority.

The group is appealing a finding that section 9 of the 2019 Act provides “broad, expansive powers” as part of parliamentary sovereignty.

Opening the case at the Court of Appeal on Tuesday, senior counsel for SPUC submitted that the 2021 regulations are invalid and carry no weight.

During submissions a comparison was drawn between other provisions within the Act in a bid to demonstrate constraints on the Secretary of State.

With that argument introduced for the first time, a barrister representing the Secretary of State sought more time to deal with the legal point.

Adjourning proceedings, Dame Siobhan confirmed the hearing will resume on January 23.

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