Northern Ireland news

Pro-life campaigners win High Court permission to challenge powers to direct abortion services

The high court in Belfast

PRO-life campaigners have won High Court permission to challenge new powers allowing the secretary of state to direct the commissioning of abortion services in Northern Ireland.

The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) was granted leave to seek a judicial review of regulations which give Brandon Lewis authority to step in.

Mr Justice Colton ruled today that an arguable case has been established and listed a full hearing for the end of this month.

The proceedings represent the latest stage in ongoing legal battles over Northern Ireland's abortion laws.

In 2019 MPs at Westminster liberalised the regime during a period when Stormont's power-sharing administration had collapsed.

Despite the move to decriminalise terminations, a centralised model for providing services has yet to be put in place.

Last week judgment was reserved in a separate challenge by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission to the ongoing delay.

The commission claims the Stormont executive, the Department of Health and the secretary of state have all abdicated their legal responsibilities amid a finger-pointing exercise.

Mr Lewis has already indicated that he will make a direction under the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2021 if there is no concrete progress by late July.

But SPUC is now contesting the lawfulness of those powers, with former Attorney General John Larkin QC instructed in a case based on constitutional arrangements under the Good Friday Agreement.

Outside court today SPUC's Northern Ireland Political Officer Liam Gibson welcomed the decision to allow its case to advance.

"This is not only a threat to unborn children, but it is a threat to devolution settlement," he said.

Mr Gibson insisted that only elected representatives in the region should make decisions on abortion.

"The secretary of state is not answerable to the people, and yet he's going to overrule the devolution settlement by instructing departmental officials to do what he decides," he added.

"It's not supposed to be direct rule from Westminster when it suits Westminster. This is a devolved matter, and it makes what the secretary of state is trying to do invalid."

It is anticipated that Mr Justice Colton will hear SPUC's arguments in full before delivering judgment in both cases.

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