Northern Ireland: High Court ruling finds abortion law in breach of UK human rights commitments

Sarah Ewart and Amnesty International win their landmark abortion law case at the Belfast High Court

Pressure mounts on Government to deliver timely transition to free, safe and legal abortion services in Northern Ireland

“This ground-breaking ruling confirms just how horrific and abusive this law really is” – Grainne Teggart

Sarah Ewart and Amnesty International have won a landmark case in Belfast’s High Court today, as judges found Northern Ireland’s strict abortion law to be in breach of the UK’s human rights commitments.

Amnesty International acted as an intervenor in the case and supported Sarah Ewart - a woman who was forced to travel to England for an abortion after being told her pregnancy had a fatal foetal diagnosis - to bring her case to court.

The court has stated that in cases of fatal foetal abnormality Northern Ireland’s abortion law is incompatible with the UK’s human rights obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Today’s ruling puts pressure on the Northern Ireland office to ensure a swift transition to free, safe, legal and local abortion services. In July, Parliament passed the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act, which will see abortion in Northern Ireland decriminalised and made lawful including in cases of risk to health, sexual crime and where there is a serious and fatal foetal abnormality, unless the Stormont executive is restored by 21 October. 

In light of this law change, the Court will now seek further advice about whether a formal declaration of incompatibility will need to be made.

Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland campaign manager, said:

“This ground-breaking ruling is a huge win for abortion rights in Northern Ireland.

“The court has spoken - the abortion law is a clear violation of our rights.

“Earlier this year Parliament legislated to reform abortion law and bring an end to the near total ban which has harmed many. 

“Today’s ruling shows just how urgently we need change, so that we can access this healthcare without having to travel and without being treated as criminals.

“There can be no delay – we must see free, safe, legal and local abortion services opening up within months.”

Sarah Ewart said:

“I’m massively relieved that the judge has ruled in our favour.  Too many women in Northern Ireland have been put through unnecessary pain by our abortion law.

“For nearly six years now I’ve not only been dealing with the experience of being denied an abortion following a fatal foetal diagnosis during pregnancy, but of being hauled through the courts so that others don’t have to go through the trauma that I did.”

Background to the case

This case was launched following a UK Supreme Court judgment in June 2018, in which five of the seven judges ruled that Northern Ireland’s abortion law breaches the UK’s human rights obligations. The UK’s Supreme Court, however, was unable to issue a formal declaration of incompatibility* due to a legal technicality that meant the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (the body that brought the case) did not have the power to bring the proceedings forward, as it was not itself a 'victim' of any unlawful act. Amnesty subsequently launched a new case with Sarah Ewart in hope that by bringing an individual’s case to the Belfast High Court, the declaration of incompatibility will be achieved.

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