Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis has failed to meet his obligations to provide comprehensive abortion services in the region, a High Court judge has ruled.
The move will put pressure on the Westminster government to tackle the situation in Northern Ireland, where women are struggling to access safe abortion services more than 18 months after the procedure was legalized in the country.
Justice Colton said that between April 2020 and March 2021, the Secretary of State failed to fulfill his obligations under section 9 of the Northern Ireland Executive Training Act 2019 because he “failed ensured that the state provides women with access to abortion and post-abortion care in all public facilities in Northern Ireland ”.
But he stopped before issuing an order requiring Lewis to set a schedule for the provision of the services. The judicial review was brought in by a woman who was asked to travel to England for an abortion during the pandemic lockdown on behalf of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC). Complaints against the Department of Health and the Northern Ireland executive have been dismissed.
In a series of tweets, Lewis said he was “deeply disappointed with the verdict”. He said the UK government was the only party in the case to take action to make abortion services available in Northern Ireland, including introducing regulations in March 2020 and other measures to force the action a year later, but the Northern Ireland executive and the Department of Health continued to “deliberately neglect the welfare and rights of women and girls at NI”.
Experts said women still had to use unregulated services and travel to England and Ireland, including during the pandemic.
Abortion was decriminalized in Northern Ireland in October 2019 after a vote in Westminster led by Labor MP Stella Creasy took advantage of a crippled Stormont, despite an attempt at the 11th hour of the region’s assembly block change. But since then the Northern Ireland Department of Health has neither commissioned nor funded any services. Some trusts have attempted to provide a service without funding or commissioned frameworks, with some areas relying on a single clinician.
After the ruling, Creasy said politicians who had “dragged their feet” in proposing a legal abortion had to act.
“Today the High Court told them that was enough. The Secretary of State must now urgently explain how he intends to comply with the law, prevent those who oppose it from denying the provisions through bureaucratic obstacles and defend the human rights of women in Northern Ireland ”, a- she declared.
After the start of legal proceedings this year, Lewis formally ordered Stormont to commission the services before the end of March 2022, but the NIHRC says the situation has not improved.
The Western Trust, which covers Derry, has not provided a service since April, with the judge noting Thursday that women in Northern Ireland face a postcode lottery if they seek an abortion.
Delivering his decision in Belfast High Court on Thursday, Colton said: “Those who hold public office, including the judiciary, must obey and apply the law. It should not be necessary for a court to order something by judicial review in circumstances where persons in public office are not prepared to comply with their legal obligations because they do not agree with applicable law.
NIHRC Chief Commissioner Alyson Kilpatrick welcomed the judgment, saying it was vital to defend the human rights of women and girls in Northern Ireland.
Kilpatrick said the report of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women found the rights of women and girls in Northern Ireland being violated, and she hoped the ruling would force the ministry Northern Ireland Health Authority to take action.
“As different parts of government argue over who is responsible, women and girls continue to have to travel to England to access abortion services, are forced to continue a pregnancy against their will or take abortion pills unregulated, ”she said. “These are decisions women and girls shouldn’t have to make in 2021. It’s not just a legal argument, it affects real people every day.”