Northern Ireland news

NI Secretary has legal authority to direct establishment of abortion services, High Court rules

Pro life activists hold a protest outside the Belfast High Court last year. Picture by Peter Morrison/PA Wire.

The Secretary of State has the legal authority to direct the establishment of abortion services in Northern Ireland, a High Court judge has ruled.

Mr Justice Colton rejected a challenge by pro-life campaigners to Brandon Lewis' powers to impose a deadline on Stormont for putting in place a centralised system.

The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) claimed only elected representatives in the region should be able to decide on the issue.

But the judge held that Mr Lewis was compelled to take the step after a United Nations body found the UK had breached the rights of women in Northern Ireland by limiting access to abortions.

He said: "Not only was the Secretary of State empowered to make regulations, but he was obliged to do so and remains obliged to do so where it appears to him further changes in the law of Northern Ireland are necessary or appropriate for complying with his duties.

"Only Parliament can change this."

The ruling represents the latest stage in an ongoing battle over Northern Ireland's abortion laws.

In 2019 MPs passed legislation to decriminalise terminations during an absence in devolution.

But a model to operate across Northern Ireland has yet to be put in place.

Counsel representing SPUC argued that Mr Lewis has no legal power to "boss people about".

But a barrister for the Secretary of State countered that parliamentary supremacy provided the authority to issue the direction, with legislation passed by Westminster enabling him to "range across any aspect of the law" in Northern Ireland.

Backing those submissions, Mr Justice Colton ruled that section 9 of the 2019 Act gave "road, expansive powers."

He also rejected claims that the 2021 Regulations contravened the Northern Ireland Protocol, EU law and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

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