Five Doughty Street barristers act in Supreme Court case which finds law on abortion in Northern Ireland to be in breach of human rights

The law on abortion in Northern Ireland is in breach of human rights.  A clear majority of the Supreme Court has found that the criminalisation of abortion in cases of rape, incest, and fatal foetal abnormality is in breach of Article 8 (the right to respect for private and family life).  Two Supreme Court justices would also have found a breach of Article 3 (the right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment).  The Court has been clear that it expects the law to change. (To access the judgment please click here.)


The Supreme Court referred to a series of statements from women in Northern Ireland who have been forced to travel to England for an abortion or to follow through with their pregnancy in such difficult cases.  Lord Kerr described the statements as “harrowing”. The Court also noted that the available evidence suggests that public opinion in Northern Ireland favours a change in the law.  The current law represents an unnecessary interference with women’s autonomy.  Lord Kerr highlighted that it would only take a “simple amendment” to the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 – which was debated in parliament this week – to remedy the human rights breach.


The Supreme Court also found that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which brought the case, did not have standing to do so.  As a result, the Court did not have jurisdiction to make any binding order in respect of the human rights breach.  That does not mean that the majority’s ruling on article 8 can safely be ignored.  As Lord Mance held, "My conclusions about the Commission’s lack of competence to bring these proceedings means that there is however no question of making any declaration of incompatibility. But the present law clearly needs radical reconsideration. Those responsible for ensuring the compatibility of Northern Ireland law with the Convention rights will no doubt recognise and take account of these conclusions, at as early a time as possible, by considering whether and how to amend the law, in the light of the ongoing suffering being caused by it …"


Doughty Street barristers acted for a series of interveners in this landmark challenge.


Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, Fiona Murphy, and Mary-Rachel McCabe acted for Humanists UK, instructed by Janet Farrell of Bhatt Murphy.  Humanists UK have made a statement which you can find by clicking here.


Adam Straw acted for Amnesty International and Sarah Jane Ewart, led by Monye Ankyadike-Danes QC and instructed by Darragh Mackin of KRW Law.  


Jude Bunting acted for seven leading reproductive rights organisations and service-providers, including the Family Planning Association, the Royal College of Midwives, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the Abortion Support Network, the Alliance for Choice, Birthrights, and Antenatal Results and Choices.  He was led by Dinah Rose QC and instructed by Rosa Curling of Leigh Day.   A press statement from these interveners is available on Leigh Day's website by clicking here.  The British Pregnancy Advisory Service have also published a statement available by clicking here

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