Court considers implications of Bill for abortion protests in Northern Ireland

Seven Supreme Court justices are considering whether the proposed legislation could amount to a disproportionate interference with the rights of people who want to protest outside abortion clinics in Northern Ireland.

Dame Brenda King, the Attorney General of Northern Ireland, has asked judges to consider a clause in the Abortion Services (Safe Access Areas) Bill.

She says the clause does not provide for a ‘reasonable excuse defence’ and wants judges to consider whether it is a ‘proportionate interference’ with the rights of ‘those who wish to express their opposition to the services of abortion in Northern Ireland”.

His office announced the decision in a statement earlier this year.

“The prosecutor asked the Supreme Court to consider whether the offense created by clause 5(2)(a) of the Abortion Services (Safe Access Areas) Bill, which does not provide for defense of reasonable excuse, is a proportionate interference with the rights of those who wish to express their opposition to abortion services in Northern Ireland,” the statement read.

“This is a separate legal issue from any contentious political issue regarding the provision of abortion services in Northern Ireland.

“If paragraph 5(2)(a) is determined by the court to be within the jurisdiction of the Assembly, the bill may become law.”

Lord Reed, Lord Kitchin, Lord Burrows, Lady Rose, Lord Lloyd-Jones, Lord Carloway and Dame Siobhan Keegan are considering arguments during an online hearing due to end on Wednesday.

A sign outside the Supreme Court in London, explaining that the building has been closed to visitors due to high temperatures and an air conditioning fault (Brian Farmer/PA)

The Supreme Court building in central London was closed to visitors due to heat and a fault in the air conditioning; a sign posted at the entrance explains the problem.

A spokeswoman said the hearings were being held online and visitors could watch the proceedings on the Supreme Court’s website.

An explanatory note to the case, posted on the court’s website, said the Northern Ireland Act 1998 allowed an Attorney General of Northern Ireland to ask the Supreme Court to consider whether a provision of a bill would fall within the “legislative jurisdiction” of the Northern Ireland Assembly. .

Abortion cases in Northern Ireland
Attorney General of Northern Ireland Brenda King (NI/PA Executive Office)

“This reference is to the Abortion Services (Safe Access Areas) (Northern Ireland) Bill,” the memo said.

“The bill provides for the creation of safe access zones around abortion clinics and other premises that provide sexual and reproductive health services, in order to protect those who use and work in these premises.

“Section 5 of the bill criminalizes certain behaviors in a secure access area.

“Under paragraph 5(2)(a), it is an offense who intentionally or recklessly does anything in a safe access area that has the effect of influencing a person attending an abortion clinic or other protected locations for protected purposes.

“There is no defense for those who act with a reasonable excuse.”

The memo says judges were asked to decide whether clause 5(2)(a) of the bill was “outside the legislative competence of the Northern Ireland Assembly” because it interfered disproportionately with human rights, such as the right to freedom of thought, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.

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