Northern Ireland news

Secretary of state went 'beyond limited legal powers' by directing establishment of full abortion services

Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris

THE secretary of state has gone beyond limited legal powers by directing the establishment of full abortion services in Northern Ireland, the Court of Appeal has heard.

Counsel for a pro-life group also claimed Chris Heaton-Harris cannot rely on changes to invalid regulations in order to issue the instruction.

John Larkin KC said: “It is grafting a healthy arm onto a corpse.”

The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (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 (CEDAW), 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.

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.

Mr Heaton-Harris has also pledged his commitment to the move, writing to the Department of Health last month to formally commission an abortion regime.

But SPUC claims the issue should be decided on by MLAs at Stormont.

In a challenge to the legality of the 2021 Regulations, it contends that constitutional arrangements enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement mean 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.

According to SPUC, the 2021 regulations are invalid and carry no weight.

“They cannot be resuscitated,” Mr Larkin insisted.

Amid claims that Mr Heaton-Harris cannot impose an order which must be complied with, counsel submitted that the 2021 regulations do not change the law in Northern Ireland.

He told the three appeal judges the point was “almost beyond argument”.

Mr Larkin argued: “Section 9 is a limitation on the power of the secretary of state.”

The appeal continues.

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